Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “bicycles in the media”

2016 Highlights

As 2016 comes to a close, it’s time for taking stock of the year’s developments in car-free transportation in the San Gabriel Valley.

Arcadia Gold Line station.

Arcadia Gold Line station.

At the top of my list is the opening of the Gold Line extension from Pasadena to Azusa.  This brought the Gold Line closer to my house, and allows me to take the train for part of my commute to work at Cal Poly Pomona.  The rest of the trip is on Foothill Transit‘s extensive bus service in the east San Gabriel Valley.  The Foothill Transit 280 and 486 buses run every 15 minutes during peak times, and their new buses are quite comfortable.  The new commute cuts about 15 minutes off my old route through El Monte Bus Station and allows me to bypass the infrequent service of the Metro 487 bus line.  The bike portion of my new commute is also shorter, which makes it more manageable on a regular basis. The easy bike ride to/from the Gold Line now allows me to get around car-free much more easily.  I’ve been heartened by the ridership I’ve seen–including many more people doing multimodal bike-transit commuting east of Pasadena.

Cal Poly bus stop before and after.

Cal Poly bus stop before (top) and after (bottom).


New bus shelters at Cal Poly Pomona.  For too long, Cal Poly’s bus stops on Temple Ave. provided no shelter and little more than a splintered old bench for bus riders (see pictures).  As a result of student activism and new campus leadership, there are two new bus shelters at the main campus bus stops on Temple Ave.  This is certainly a step in the right direction and I’m modestly hopeful for additional progress on transit and bike access to campus.

Thanks to the work of many local advocates, progress toward new bike plans have been made in Pasadena, Monrovia, and La Verne.  With better infrastructure, I’m confident we’ll see an uptick in bike ridership, which in turn should lead to even more bike infrastructure in the future.  Despite these small victories, the pace of change in the SGV is so slow and incremental that it barely registers today. Too many streets are unsafe for cycling and too many destinations are hard to get to by bike and when you arrive, they often lack basic bike amenities like bike racks.  It’s easy to feel angry about the lack of good bike infrastructure that places people at risk and deters others from riding in the SGV, but there are good people working to change this, and they must be given due credit.  The advocates at BikeSGV, for example, have done some wonderful work organizing community rides, setting up the Bike Education Center in El Monte, advocating for complete streets, and bringing a multi-city open streets event to the SGV.  They honored me this past year with an award for my bike advocacy, an award for which I was hardly worthy, but profoundly honored, nonetheless.  I draw hope and inspiration from these fellow advocates.

More protected bike lanes, like this one in Santa Monica, are needed in the SGV.

More protected bike lanes, like this one in Santa Monica, are needed in the SGV.

Education and outreach.  In 2016 I was involved in an alternative transportation project at my daughter’s high school and an alternative transportation conference at Cal Poly Pomona. I also was privileged to speak on “cycling and social justice” to a group of inmates in a Prison Education Project at the invitation of one of my fantastic colleagues at Cal Poly, political science professor Dr. Renford Reese.  In general, I found many of the people I spoke to open to the message of bicycling, walking, and transit for healthier communities. Spreading the message of the many benefits of car-free alternatives was deeply gratifying.

Scott Schultz of BUSted Los Angeles speaks to students at Cal Poly's alternative transportation conference in November.

Scott Schultz of BUSted Los Angeles speaks to students at Cal Poly’s alternative transportation conference in November.

Measure M.  The half-cent sales tax for transportation passed in Los Angeles by a healthy margin (approx. 70 percent voted yes).  This will mean expansion of Metro rail, local bus service, and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.  Measure A, a countywide tax for parks, also passed, which means LA County will have funds for turning many of its now-barren flood control channels into “linear parks” with multi-use paths. Such victories give me hope.

Notable Books and Films of 2016:

  • Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment by Winona Hauter. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of oil and natural gas is neither safe nor a “bridge fuel” to sustainable energy.
  • Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America by Christopher F. Jones.  Technically, came out last year, but it was new to me this year, so I’m including it here.  Jones, an historian at Arizona State University, weaves a fascinating story of how the infrastructure of fossil fuel was created in the United States, and offers a deeper understanding of how energy transitions take place–essential knowledge as we transition away from a carbon economy. His research also underscores the central importance of pipelines for the delivery of fossil fuel and the expansion of the carbon economy, and thus the importance of blocking the construction of new pipelines in the fight for a livable climate and clean water.
  • Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan.  The lively story of how Sadik-Khan, former transportation commissioner for NYC, overcame opposition and redesigned many of New York’s streets to be more bike and pedestrian friendly.  Essential reading for any alternative transportation advocate.
  • Before the Flood (documentary film) directed by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Surprisingly good climate change documentary that doesn’t let Westerners’ high-consumption lifestyle off the hook.
  • Bikes vs. Cars (documentary film) directed by Fredrik Gertten.  Technically released Dec. 2015, but wasn’t available until this year.  If you want a good primer on why bikes are and must be a key component of sustainable urban transportation as told through the eyes of several bike advocates in cities around the world, this film is for you.

Thought for 2017: Every bike used for transportation is an instrument of peaceful revolution, every car-free trip a step towards a more equitable, sustainable future.

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.

EV Boosterism

Is the injunction to “buy an electric car” the best solution we can come up with for dealing with climate change?  Not only does such advice tacitly encourage more driving, it utterly fails to consider the drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (rather than just gasoline consumption) we should be striving for.  It seems to me a bit like offering an alcoholic a “light” beer, because it’s got lower alcohol content and the assumption is that your comfortable drinking habit will be slightly less destructive in the short run.

Steve Scauzullo, a respected transportation and environment reporter for the Los Angeles News Group, authored an opinion piece acknowledging the reality of climate change and urging his readers to take action.  So far as it goes, I applaud him for his willingness to at least try to tackle this subject and present it to his readers.  He advises readers to reduce “heat islands” (i.e., parking lots), use lighter colored roofing to reflect light, and “drive an electric car.”  Anything else? How about taxing carbon? Driving less by taking public transit? Pledging not to vote for flat-earthers who deny climate change? Nope. Just buy a new car and keep living like you’ve always lived.

Scauzullo’s article doesn’t even mention the less-glamorous transportation alternatives of transit, bikes, or walking, and the relatively small changes to our infrastructure needed to make that happen  Not even a cursory nod.  Too bad, because those simpler alternatives, in addition to reducing GHGs, would also reduce traffic deaths and injury, reduce traffic congestion, and result in a more active, healthy lifestyle (all of which are big money-savers for society).  Moreover, driving less is something everyone—regardless of income—can do now.  You don’t have to wait until you have $35,000 for an EV or until there’s a charging station at your office.  We can take public transit to work, walk, or ride our bikes for many of our shorter trips.  Start one day a week—just one—and work up from there.  It gets people weaning themselves off the car, and prepares them to think about mobility beyond the resource-intensive and costly automobile system.

Let’s consider his suggestion to reduce heat islands.  Unfortunately, it fails to consider why we have constructed so many parking lots in the first place.  Indeed, the big box store in the middle of a huge asphalt parking lot is the perfect ur-symbol (and symptom) of automobile-centric sprawl.  The asphalt jungle is what it is primarily because of the desire to design the built environment exclusively around the automobile for the last 80 years.  Switching to EVs won’t do a damn thing to reduce the demand for huge asphalt parking lots.  Best case scenario from this bit of advice is that a bioswale and a few trees might make the Wal-Mart parking lot a couple of degrees cooler as you load your eSUV full of more disposable plastic crap (much of which is made from petroleum and shipped halfway around the world, ballooning its carbon footprint), but it’s not going to cool the planet’s climate.  Moreover, if we assume that the rest of the world’s 7-plus billion inhabitants follow our lead and want their own EVs and Wal-Marts, the result will be the creation of a lot more heat islands the world over, not to mention the spread of an unsustainable mega-consumerist lifestyle.  Shouldn’t climate change advice at least question the ecological appropriateness of the whole big box-in-the-middle-of-a-parking lot mode of development for the planet?

Likewise, his suggestion to “cool your roof,” like the parking lot idea, is unlikely to halt the rise of global CO2 levels.  The main reason for lighter roofs is to cut air conditioning usage but, on a macro-economic scale, it could have the opposite effect on overall  energy use if people and businesses invest their energy savings in additional production and consumption.  Case in point:  Wal-Mart has been painting its roofs light colors, and even installing solar panels on some of its super stores to save money on electricity, but its CO2 emissions are still going up.  What gives?  Well, it is a business model based on endless global growth, for one, and when it ships and sells more crap, its carbon footprint goes up.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on Mr. Scauzullo.  Maybe his third suggestion to “drive an electric car” will be the mega-idea that really sets us on the road to the 80% reduction in overall global GHG emissions by 2050 that climate scientists think we’ll need to achieve to forestall catastrophic climate change.

Fossil fuels (i.e. gasoline) when burned produce more GHG than other fuels and much more than alternative fuels. For example, power plants running on natural gas produce half the amount of GHG than those burning coal. Also, in California, 33 percent of all power will be from alternative-energy very shortly. This means, by 2020, one third of all electric car drivers will produce zero GHG.

Ah, yes.  EVs will save the planet.  OK, I get that EVs produce less GHG per mile than gasoline-powered motor vehicles, but, like most arguments about EVs this one neither considers the scale of the automobile system nor its overall carbon footprint.  Let’s understand this: understood as a complete system, there’s no such thing as a “zero GHG” automobile.  No such thing as a “green car.”

Let’s just do a little back-of-the-napkin calculation, shall we?  Now, let’s assume, as Scauzullo does, that we’re going to have wind/solar power for 33% of California’s energy supply by 2030.  But what happens when tens of millions of California drivers switch to EVs (and let’s assume they drive the same mileage as they do now)? Let’s also assume many of California’s 6 million trucks and millions of buses also switch to electric power.   The monumental increase in electricity demand from tens of millions of EVs might make California utilities happy, but it will also stretch the limits of even renewable resources at peak demand.  The increased overall electricity demand could, I suppose, be met with nuclear power generation, but that has its own set of problems, and let’s not pretend it’s “green”.

EV proponents rarely step back and extrapolate the global energy demand of literally billions of EVs, either.  Let’s consider what happens to global energy demand once the car culture spreads to China, India, and the rest of the world.  Let’s not forget, under this expanding global consumerist future, humanity would still need to generate massive amounts of electricity to power industry, including a larger global automobile industry making EVs for the world’s billions of consumers.  Recently, an energy analysis by the International Energy Agency concluded that global demand for electricity will rise faster than the growth of renewable energy.  Thus, even with new renewable supplies the IEA concludes, global CO2 output is expected to rise by 20% by 2030, despite the fact that climate scientists say we need to reduce CO2 output by 80% by midcentury.  Help me understand how the world’s 7-plus billion inhabitants driving EVs will square that circle.  Maybe EV proponents assume the automobile lifestyle is ok for us (wink), but not for them.

Setting aside the inevitable traffic congestion that will come with an increase of motor vehicles on California’s roads (another thing EV-lovers don’t contend with), let’s think about the inefficiency of this mode of energy consumption.  Because more than 90% of a motor vehicle’s power goes to moving the mass of the vehicle itself, not its passenger, any transportation system designed around the private automobile is an enormous waste of precious energy.  Even if the energy is renewable, wouldn’t it be far wiser to use the megawatts for electric transit (buses, streetcars, LRT)?

The carbon footprint of an electric car is not merely that which it emits from the tailpipe, but the overall footprint of its production, use, and disposal.  Calculate the global carbon footprint of the iron and other metal mines, lithium mines for billions of batteries, and, yes, the petroleum for the large quantity of plastics in each EV, and the other sites of resource extraction needed to produce raw materials for the manufacture of literally hundreds of millions—if not billions—of EVs annually.  Next calculate the carbon footprint of the smelting, refining, and manufacturing operations necessary to make those billions of EVs, then the transportation of all of them to market, not to mention the exponential growth of the GHG-intensive concrete and asphalt industries to pave the way for the billions of EVs globally.  I’m not even touching here the problem of toxic waste disposal of all those batteries when they need replacing.  Bottom line: the amount of electricity and the resource extraction necessary for everyone in the US (let alone the globe as a whole) to continue the automobile-based lifestyle may very well negate the marginal short-term advantage of buying EVs.  Look, I’m not saying gas guzzlers are better, I’m saying if we want to really tackle climate change, we’re going to have to move the conversation beyond cars, period.

We’re going to need to radically alter our lifestyle in the coming decades if we’re serious about tackling climate change, and sorry to tell you car-lovers, this will mean significantly shifting away from the automobile-based lifestyle.  It doesn’t mean you have to go cold turkey from your car addiction, but you should see the EV as your transition, kind of like methadone for a heroin addict.  It only works if you understand that our children’s children will eventually have to kick the entire habit to survive.  On the plus side, you’ll begin to see that not only is life possible after car addiction, you’ll lose the nasty side effects (traffic, noise, sprawl, obesity, and 35,000 highway deaths annually).  Will cars still be necessary for some things for a while?  Of course.  But a redesigned transportation system that focuses on moving people, not cars can eliminate the need for a car for many people, most of the time.  Such change won’t happen immediately, but in the coming years we can begin a serious transition.

When more people start kicking the car habit, we can invest in our transit system so it becomes an even more attractive alternative for getting to work, school, and shopping.  We can encourage businesses to locate near transit and access for bikes and pedestrians.  Then we won’t need so many of those heat island parking lots.  Maybe we can actually turn some of those empty Wal-Mart parking lots into beautiful community gardens.

We’ll also be healthier as people get out of their cars and walk or bike more, and, when we restripe more of our streets to accommodate bikes, pedestrians, and transit first (as many European countries are doing today), we’ll make our transportation system safer for everyone.  The cost of doing so will be less than the cost of providing expensive EV-charging stations, and it will be more socially equitable, because people of modest income won’t be forced to spend the tens of thousands of dollars necessary on an EV in order to get to work or school.  Best of all, we’ll be able to use the earth’s resources and that precious renewable wind and solar energy for things we really need.

We need journalists, teachers, ministers, and other community leaders to tell the truth about the significant changes in our lifestyle necessary to combat the globe’s rising GHG emissions.  It’s doable, and actually less expensive than feeding an insatiable automobile habit.  The good news is, it is not only cheaper, but more healthy than the car-based lifestyle.  Sadly, many people—even liberal environmental journalists—may still be in denial.

Profits over Safety

Bicycling for transportation certainly brings many joys and benefits, but there are times on the road when you definitely feel vulnerable.  I don’t so much fear the out-of-control driver as I do the inattentive one, because the latter are much more common.  You know the ones, trying to pretend they’re not texting, but the telltale downward glances into their lap every 5 seconds are a dead giveaway.  I can’t tell you how many times in my daily commute I see drivers talking on their cell phones or texting.  On my commute home last week, one driver almost ran a red light as I was about to cross the intersection and, yup, she was yakking away on a cell phone with both eyes technically on the road.

It’s been well-established that using a hand-held device makes driving more dangerous, but the key thing is, it’s not just because both eyes oren’t on the road, and both hands aren’t on the wheel—it’s because activities such as talking on a phone or texting require cognitive attention to those tasks, and that takes away cognitive attention from the road, reducing reaction time.

Meanwhile, car manufacturers have been loading up their new cars with lots of fancy voice-activated, “hands-free” electronic gadgets in recent years in an attempt to woo buyers.  The assumption is that “hands free” means risk free when it comes to driving, but that assumption has been dealt a serious blow by a new study commissioned by AAA (not exactly an “anti-car” group, to say the least).  The study found that hands-free, voice activated devices, when used for making phone calls or voice texting, or accessing email or social media resulted in “significant impairments to driving that stem from the diversion of attention from the task of operating a motor vehicle.”  The study concluded that the use of these devices poses an “extensive” safety risk.  This occurs because the increased mental workload and cognitive distraction caused by the use of these devices “can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”

Not surprisingly, auto manufacturers dismissed the study, claiming their devices are “safe” because they “keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.”  Only it’s not true.  This issue isn’t your hands and eyes, it’s your brain.  Radios do little to distract drivers, the study found, but active communication requires a level of cognitive attention that impairs driving.  With certain hands-free tasks, your brain isn’t on the road, even if your eyes are.

If you need to check email or take a call, pull over and park.  You’re operating a piece of heavy equipment on the public roads, and distracted driving is impaired driving, even if both hands are on the wheel.  Heavier fines for using cell phones and other voice-activated devices should be imposed.  We shouldn’t wait for the auto industry to agree.  As Ralph Nader showed America over 40 years ago, the industry will gladly put profits ahead of safety, even when the evidence is overwhelming.

That’s one reason I like things like green bike lanes, such as those on Spring Street in downtown L.A.  The green paint makes the bike lane as visible as possible to catch the attention of distracted drivers.  I’ve ridden them a number of times and they provide more safety for bicyclists because of their greater visibility.

Once again, an industry’s profits are threatening to trump public safety.  FilmL.A., the film industry’s lobby group, is on a crusade to remove the green paint from Spring Street’s bike lane.  Location managers initially claimed that it would make Spring Street an unsuitable stand-in for other cities.  Then, when it was pointed out that cities as diverse as Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia Minneapolis, Washington DC, and New York (to name a few) also have green bike lanes, the industry switched its argument and said they couldn’t remove the green paint in post-production.  When that was proven false, then they claimed it was the green reflection that they couldn’t remove.  Now they claim they can remove the green tint, but it raises the costs of production.  Ah, well money trumps safety for one of the most profitable industries on the globe, see.  I hope the LA City Council has the courage to stand up to Film L.A. and keep Spring Street green.

Safety over profits.  Sounds crazy, I know.  Maybe we should try it.

Bike Month Woes

May is “Bike Month,” according to the League of American Bicyclists (not to mention the one year anniversary of this blog).  I expected I’d be posting a lot more.

Yet, I’ve been away from the blog for longer than I’d intended, partly because I’ve been busy with another writing project and partly because I’ve been in something of a funk about the glacial pace of change in our deeply-rooted car culture (come to think of it, in light of the rapidity with which glaciers are melting due to climate change, we humans seem to be moving slower than glaciers).

Speaking of climate change, the signs are ominous, to say the least.  Last week, scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory measured atmospheric CO2 at 400 parts per million (ppm), the highest level recorded in, like, literally a million years.  The level of atmospheric CO2 was about 280 ppm at the beginning of the industrial revolution in the middle of the 19th century, and had not exceeded 300 ppm for the previous 800,000 years.  In 1958, when modern measurement began, the level was 316 ppm.  The scientists didn’t mince words about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity (like, um, driving our millions of cars everywhere like there’s no tomorrow).  As one of the scientists told the Los Angeles Times:

“The 400-ppm threshold is a sobering milestone, and should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to support clean-energy technology and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, before it’s too late for our children and grandchildren.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s evidence of a backlash against bike lanes in L.A., even though we need more of them (as well as a substantial expansion of public transit) so people have realistic alternatives to the car.  First, the Eagle Rock Chamber of Commerce has been orchestrating a campaign to stop the installation of bike lanes on Colorado Blvd. in Eagle Rock, painting pictures of apocalyptic traffic jams and blaming bike lanes instead of cars.  Next, the L.A. Times editorialized against the green bike lanes on Spring Street downtown, repeating the discredited argument of location managers for film production companies that green bike lanes “ruin” L.A. as a film location.  I’ve used those green bike lanes and they provide a safe space for bicycles on that busy downtown street.

As if that weren’t enough, I’ve had a series of extremely frustrating arguments with some of my friends and members of my family about the need to break out of the automobile-centered culture.  They agree in principle but they refuse to act on this principle.

All of which reinforces for me the seriousness of the death grip that the automobile has on this culture … indeed, on this planet and its future.  It also makes it harder to stay optimistic, which I try to do in this space.  Hence, my absence.

Time for a bike ride.  It always makes me feel better.

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.

Media (Mis)representation

Parklet on Polk Street, San Francisco, that the L.A. Times sees as a "freeway for bikes" that will "jeopardize" the street.  SF Streetsblog photo.

Parklet on Polk Street, San Francisco, that the L.A. Times sees as a “freeway for bikes” that will “jeopardize” the street. SF Streetsblog photo.

A recent story in the L.A. Times about San Francisco’s efforts to make Polk Street more bike-friendly illustrates how many in the media just don’t get it when it comes to modern urban street design and transportation.

Ostensibly, the article reported on a neighborhood meeting to discuss replacing of an estimated 170 on-street parking spaces on Polk with bike lanes and parklets (pictured above) that has some business owners and local motorists fearing the end of the world.  The meeting was apparently dominated by opponents of the plan, and some of those in attendance who support the plan said they felt too intimidated to speak.  The article noted that supporters who spoke were often booed or “met with disdain.”  The reporter, Maria LaGanga, appears to have sought the views of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition director Leah Shahum, which were included in her story.  But there was much else in the story that reflects a subtle and pervasive anti-bike bias in the reporting.

First, LaGanga went out of her way to mention the killing of a pedestrian by a reckless bicyclist in San Francisco last year (the cyclist was recently charged with felony vehicular manslaughter), while mentioning only in passing, and much later in the story, that a pedestrian or cyclist is struck by a car an average of once a month on Polk Street.  In so doing she virtually ignores the regular carnage caused by cars, and plays up an isolated incident involving a bicyclist a year earlier.  She also buried the fact that the plan would leave untouched 2,100 on-street parking spots within a block of Polk, a fact which would have put the near-hysterical opposition of motorists in a very different light had it been mentioned at the beginning of the story.  As readers of this blog may remember, it’s not the first time this Times reporter has done a hit piece on San Francisco’s emerging bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

Drivers of 2,000-lb vehicles with hundreds of horsepower are portrayed as the weaker, aggrieved party that is “under attack,” while bicyclists who want safe space over a small portion of the roadway are portrayed as the aggressors.  She describes the plan as literally “jeopardizing the vital north-south corridor” between the city’s Civic Center and the bay.  Who knew that bike lanes could “jeopardize” and entire street?  While LaGanga amplifies the fears of some local businesses that the plan is a “commerce killer,” she makes no effort to inform readers that complete streets makeovers such as the one contemplated for Polk have revitalized struggling business districts in numerous places where they’ve been tried.

The online version is even worse for playing up a phony “bikes vs. cars” trope and the online headline actually repeats the idiotic idea that this will make Polk some sort of “freeway for bikes,” in the words of one opponent.  The plan would actually reduce traffic speeds, provide safe road space for pedestrians and bikes, while the parklets would provide more space for people to hang out, shop, and socialize.  Precisely the atmosphere that would attract more commercial activity.  Hardly a “freeway for bikes” or a “commerce killer.”  Yet these irrational fears get played as headlines in the Times.

The problem of media bias is largely a reflection of a deeply-ingrained car culture that is so ubiquitous that it is rarely questioned.  Mobility, in this context, means getting behind the wheel of a car.  Exchanging curbside car parking (on one street) for parklets and bike lanes that enable people to enjoy the neighborhood at a slower pace thus gets transmogrified into an imaginary “war on cars.”  Moreover, as with most complete streets plans, this one leaves a significant portion of lateral roadway space for cars, bike lanes notwithstanding.

LaGanga might have used the meeting to probe the assumptions behind conflicts over road space such as that on Polk.  She might have explored the evolving idea that streets are for pedestrians, transit, and bikes (as well as cars), rather than adopting the assumption that motorists have a right to monopolize all road space.  The fact that none of the opponents offer any alternative ideas for how cities might improve road safety, reduce automobile congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the continued degradation of public space for more automobile parking, also deserves consideration in any reporting of the story.

Since the LA Times has assigned Maria LaGanga to its transportation beat in San Francisco, perhaps it’s time for her to commute by bike and/or public transportation once a week in the interest of fair reporting.  I’m not saying she’s got to give up her car, but it’s clear that she’s got little or no knowledge about issues facing urban cyclists or modern transportation policy beyond the automobile.

C’mon Ms. LaGanga, rent a bike, strap on a helmet, and take a ride on Polk Street without a bike lane at rush hour.  You’ll get a whole different perspective on the whole “bikes vs. cars” thing.

Anti-Bike Bias

Bike-haters.  I can spot them a mile away.  The first dead givaway is their use of the term “bikers” to describe cyclists (usually said with a Dick Cheney-like snarl of the upper lip).  In their minds, “bikers” aren’t simply people trying to get from place to place on nonpolluting 2-wheelers, but annoying obstacles in the way of their benign automobiles, which is why God made roads in the first place, you know.  In their fevered minds, traffic congestion is caused by bicyclists, not cars.  The addition of a few miles of bike lanes among the thousands of miles of roadway in Southern California evidence that the dreaded “bikers” are advancing in some imaginary “war” on innocent motorists.  Armed with the sense of entitlement that comes with 60-odd years of transportation policy that has privileged the automobile over all other modes of transportation, they prepare to do battle with these nefarious terrorists of the pavement.

The latest example of this retrograde mentality is a recent anti-bike screed by Mark Lacter in a recent edition of LA Biz Observed.  What set Lacter off, apparently, was a community meeting held to discuss the possibility of some new bike lanes in Santa Monica and Westwood, an area of the city literally choking with cars.  The city, he claimed “is being divided again” between “bikers in search of more space” and “motorists looking to hold on to what little space they have.”  Right.  With more than 64 square miles of surface street space and untold acres of parking space, a few more bike lanes are barely a drop in the sea of acreage given over to the automobile (Shoup, p. 657).  The fact that every inch of street space we build eventually becomes choked with cars is not the fault of too many people riding bicycles.

Lacter claims bike lanes are all part of some “grandiose transportation scheme,” concocted by city bureaucrats at the beck and call of a cabal of “biking supporters.”  Hmmm, no wonder the oil and automobile industry quake when they are confronted by the all-powerful bike lobbying juggernaut.  Yeah, if only.  Actually, this is another trope of the bike haters: cynically deploy the idea that there is some divisive “bikes vs. cars” war going on, when in fact all that’s happening is cities confronting the reality that they’re going to need multiple forms of transportation in the future if they are to continue to grow and not be continually gridlocked (not to mention reducing carbon emissions).  Redesigning streets to accommodate more bikes and transit is a big part of that solution.

Another part of the bike hater’s argument is the specious claim that, as Lacter puts it, “bike lanes are frequently empty,” without considering whether the lack of a safe, practical network of bike lanes might be a reason for fewer people choosing to commute by bike.  As a previous post of mine discussed at length, studies show that when there is a safe network of protected space for bikes on the roadways, ridership goes up—often way up.  Also, just because a bike lane might appear empty at a particular moment, does not mean no one uses it.  Moreover, we mandate parking lots for cars, even though they’re not always in use and we have sidewalks for pedestrians even though they’re not always full.  Why should bike lanes be treated differently?  Here’s where Lacter gets confused.  No sooner does he claim that the bike lanes are empty, he then says “increased [bike] ridership has only made L.A. streets more dangerous” and complains about all the bicyclists he sees on the sidewalks.  Well, which is it, Mr. Lacter?  You can’t have it both ways.

The bike hater never claims to be anti-bike, mind you, it’s just that, he doesn’t want bikes on the sidewalks, doesn’t want them mixing with automobile traffic, and doesn’t want bike lanes.  Ah, there’s the rub.  He doesn’t think people should ride bikes, period.  Maybe these “bikers” should all just drive cars, adding to the already gridlocked traffic, slurping up more oil, and spewing more carbon into the atmosphere.  And what should we do to accommodate all those extra cars?  Billions for freeway widening?  Jackhammer sidewalks to add lanes to our roadways?  Bulldoze neighborhoods for more parking garages?

Anything but those pesky bike lanes.

Alan Deane

Last September, Alan Deane was riding his bicycle to work in Pasadena when he was struck and killed by a driver who made a left turn into him.  It was Alan’s 61st birthday.

Yesterday Deane’s killer, 30-year-old Sidharth Misra, was sentenced in a Pasadena court after being convicted of reckless driving.  After viewing a surveillance video of the incident, Pasadena Police initially sought a charge of Vehicular Manslaughter, but attorneys plea bargained it down to reckless driving because, as Judge Stephen Monette explained, even though Misra was entirely at fault, there was no evidence that he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  So let me get this straight.  If you’re impaired and you plow into a bicyclist, it’s manslaughter.  If you’re perfectly sober and you plow into a bicyclist because you fail to exercise proper caution, you’re held to a lesser responsibility?  Seems like when you’re sober, you ought to be expected to know better.

In the courtroom, Mr. Misra expressed remorse for his actions, and I do not doubt he is sincere, but I would expect that someone who recklessly takes someone else’s life with a motor vehicle to at least lose the privilege of driving for a while.  This driver has proven he can’t properly handle a motor vehicle.  Mr. Misra’s penalty for killing Deane?  400 hours of community service and 3 years probation.  Alan’s grieving father told the Pasadena Star-News he considered the penalty “a slap on the wrist,” and “completely insignificant.”  I agree.

Among bicyclists, there is an ironic joke that if you want to get away with murder in the United States, just be sure your victim is on a bicycle and you are in a car.  No judge will punish you.  Judge Monette said at the sentencing, “Nothing I do can ultimately change the fact that Mr. Deane is not with us anymore.”  So, if you’re killed by a reckless driver while lawfully riding your bike home, too bad?  The guy who couldn’t be bothered to slow down and watch the road while operating a 2,000-lb motor vehicle can’t be expected to be held fully responsible for taking a human life, can he?  Certainly no reason for suspending his driver’s license for a while, eh judge?  After all, as judge Monette said to the other (motorists) in the courtroom: “All of us could have been in that situation …”  You know how it is.  We all drive recklessly and take a human life from time to time.

In many European countries, there are “vulnerable road user” laws that protect bicyclists and pedestrians.  Penalties are stiff for killing a vulnerable road user and drivers are taught to watch for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Road design in Europe also provides space for bikes and pedestrians and slows traffic speeds.  As a result, their safety records are far better than ours.  Their laws value human life over shaving a minute off someone’s drive home.

Maybe we should too.

The Pathology of the Automobile

There is a peculiar pathology that overtakes a society dedicated to the car, one that values the car over the well being of people who are not in cars.  Once you’ve succumbed to what I’ll call the pathology of the automobile, it makes perfect sense to hop in 4,000 lbs of steel to pick up a quart of milk, and any pedestrian or bicyclist who gets in your precious way be damned.

As Europeans have sought to make their cities safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, some auto manufacturers have attempted to market some of their cars as less deadly to pedestrians.  The problem is there’s really no way to make a 4,000 lb car “safe” when it plows into a human body.

Take the $126,000 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550, which boasts a new, blunt front end, so that your gleaming Benz will cut a hapless walker off at the hips instead of the knees and a hood that “gives” a bit more when a person lands on it, presumably increasing the survival rate.  Thus the Mercedes allows its well-heeled owner to drive to the fitness club and pay for the privilege of walking on a treadmill, secure in the supposition that any poor sap who’d gotten in the way would wind up in a wheelchair instead of a coffin.  I guess that’s one way of looking at progress.

Lest you think I’m a bit too cynical, or that I overstate the blindness of our car-addicted society to the absurdity of this, consider automotive journalist David Undercoffler’s review of the Mercedes SL 550 in the L.A. Times.  The problem, as far as Undercoffler sees it, is not the obscene death toll wrought by the automobile, it is that the car’s redesign for pedestrian safety has “thrown a wrench into the aesthetic evolution” of the Mercedes, giving it “a bug-eyed face.”  Such “regrettably conspicuous” “collateral damage” to the previously sleek lines of the Mercedes could have been avoided, Undercoffler suggests, “if Europeans didn’t walk so darn much.”  Yeah, leave it to those darned Europeans, who had to go and ruin a perfectly good-looking car out of a silly concern for the losers who had the misfortune of not being in one.

It would be fairly easy to laugh this off as the pathetic musings of a car-addled brain if the pathology weren’t so common, and if the death toll wasn’t so serious.  Automobiles kill an average of 13 pedestrians every day in the United States.  That’s almost 5,000 a year.  That doesn’t include the many more seriously injured every day.  We’ve become so enthralled with our cars and so convinced of our entitlement as drivers that we can’t—or won’t—see the incredibly high social cost they impose.  Instead of driving less and refashioning our cities around less deadly alternatives (transit, bicycles, walking), a society suffering from the pathology of the automobile tinkers with its death machines and bemoans the maudlin concern for human life.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t try to make cars safer, but the focus on reshaping the car’s bumper seems a bit like trying to make cigarettes less deadly by putting filters on them.  Complaining about the loss of a car’s sleek front end is like complaining that cigarette filters destroyed the macho look of unfiltered cigarettes.  It sort of misses the point.  Since both products are inherently deadly, ultimately we’ll really make things safer only if we reduce our dependence on them.

If we were to look at cars the way we look at cigarettes–another deadly consumer product that produces an irrational addiction–then it might lead us to some “crazy” ideas.  We might start, as we’ve done with cigarettes, by taxing them more heavily to discourage their use and defray the myriad health and environmental costs they impose on society.  We could use the money to build safer, convenient transit systems that would wean us off our auto-dependence (not to mention our wars for oil).  We could ban automobile advertising or have PSAs that show the real carnage produced by the automobile to counteract the multi-billion dollar car-and-oil propaganda campaign we’re subjected to every time we turn on the TV.  Let’s create car-free spaces in our cities and on our streets, just as we have smoke-free spaces so that people can move about without fear of death or dismemberment from a 4,000 lb blunt-nosed projectile like the Mercedes SL 500.  Let’s assume that the right to walk across the street without being hit by a car is as important as the right to breathe smoke-free air.

In a society suffering from the pathology of the automobile everyone and everything–even human life–must be sacrificed to the presumed rights of the driver.  In a recent story on the ostensibly baneful increase of bicyclists on city streets, John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists’ Association (described by the Detroit Free Press as “a drivers’ rights advocacy organization”), exhibited this pathology when he told the paper,

In certain cities, where they’re very bike-friendly, you often see bikers [sic] asserting themselves maybe more than they should. . . . Bicyclists need to look out for cars because they’re most vulnerable.  In any type of conflict between a car and a bike, the car always wins.

So, let’s get this straight, if bicyclists “assert” their right to the road, they’re automatically at fault because in a “conflict” between a human and 4,000 lbs of steel, “the car always wins.”  There is a certain logic to this, and it is the logic of the sociopath: I’m bigger than you, so get out of my way and keep your mouth shut or I’ll kick your ass.  Thus forewarned, it’ll be your own fault when I beat the crap out of you.

A more balanced perspective that cared more about human lives than the continued dominance of the automobile would turn Bowman’s logic on its head.  Cars, Mr. Bowman, need to look out for pedestrians and bicyclists, precisely because they’re most vulnerable.  See that little brake pedal in your big car?  Just apply a little pressure on it and you could save a human life.

Human life more important than the car?  Sounds crazy, I know.

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