Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “bikes and health”

Remembering a Tree

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This week I rode down to my local grocery store and noticed the little island where an oak tree once stood had been paved over.  No more oak tree. Asphalt for more cars. It seemed like a metaphor to me.

A tree is a little thing, really.  Seems silly to mourn its loss when its destruction frees up more space for parked cars.  Is this what they mean by “creative destruction”? Besides, as one of my suburban neighbors once told me, “you can’t go to the grocery store on a bicycle.”  The store seems to agree, since they don’t provide a decent bike rack if you brave the streets lacking bike lanes and ride your bike to the store.  Hardly anybody I know rides their bike to the store (even though some of them think climate change is real). Too hard, I guess.

Nevertheless I used to lock my bike to a signpost in the shade under that tree.  It was nice.

But the oak tree wasn’t making the grocery company any money.  It just sat there, doing what trees do.  This way, a few more people will be able to park their cars close to the store. I’m sure they’ll think it was worth it. Maybe some of them drive Priuses.  That will make it alright, won’t it?

But I’ll remember that tree.

CicLAvia Pasadena

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup.  ‘Nuff said.

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Being an Advocate

A friend recently asked me how I got into bike advocacy.  Well, actually, she asked me how I got into “advocacy,” and I assume she meant bike advocacy, though I think I’ve been an advocate for social justice most of my life.  It’s just part of who I am, I guess.  I see something that needs changing and I research the issue and often join with others who are working on that issue.  We call such people “advocates” or “activists” or sometimes “troublemakers,” but, really, when you get right down to it, isn’t that just citizenship?  We’ve created these labels for active citizenship in part because we live in an era when our role as citizens is supposed to be passively consumed on TV or social media, not in real life.   Those who get out and organize for change are thus labeled as an aberration—a “special interest”—when in fact that’s what every citizen should probably be doing.

Back to the main question.  I got into bike advocacy because the moment I started riding my bike for transportation I started to realize most of our streets had been misdesigned.  It was only as I studied the issue further that I realized how badly misdesigned they were and how it was connected to other misuses of social space and resources.  About the time I began substituting my bike for some of my short car trips (around 2008 or so) a colleague at work showed me an article on bicycle infrastructure in Europe—focused on either Copenhagen or Amsterdam, I can’t recall which—and it fired my imagination for what could be, what might be, and what is possible.  Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the history of how our society constructed a car-based infrastructure that limits how we live, interact with each other, and get from place to place.  It has underscored the importance of radically changing our infrastructure to adapt to more socially and environmentally sustainable transportation modes.

Shortly thereafter I started finding and joining bicycle advocacy (there’s that word again) organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) and CICLE that connected me with others who had a similar vision.  I went on the LA River Ride sponsored by LACBC and several other group rides sponsored by CICLE.  Around 2010, I went on a CICLE-sponsored “tweed ride” in downtown LA.  In many ways I really saw LA for the first time.  Oh, I’d driven through LA many times, usually on my way to someplace, but being on my bike revealed the rich texture of the city for the first time.  It was a revelation that you could feel safe riding city streets if there were enough other people riding too.  I also met Joe Linton on this ride, and he inspired me to continue my effort to be the change I wished to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi would say.  I wanted to write about my experiences, share them with others to show that another world is possible, but I was reluctant.  Joe provided the encouraging words that helped me to start this blog, too.  I think that the experience of CicLAvia really reinforced how different—how much better—our human interactions could be in car-free spaces.  CicLAvia sort of turned me into an evangelist for creating car-free space in our communities and giving people realistic alternatives to the car.

This hasn’t been easy.  Recognizing how badly we’ve gone wrong when others don’t even recognize the problem exists can be a lonely and frustrating experience.  Reading writers like Jane Jacobs, Jane Holtz Kay, Jeff Mapes, Charles Montgomery, Jeff Speck, Peter Norton, Christopher Wells, and others, made me realize I wasn’t alone and helped me deepen my sense that these changes were not only possible but highly desirable.  Reading deeply about the existential crisis of climate change has reinforced that the status quo is unsustainable and that radical change is essential.

Change is never easy, but without a movement of organized people pushing for change it will not happen by itself.  When I see the need for safer streets for myself, I know that they’ll benefit others, too.  I also know that it won’t happen if we don’t shake people out of their complacency.  No individual can do it alone—it takes a group of people to get anything accomplished and the bigger and more diverse the group, the stronger it is.  It’s only working in concert with others that my choices make a larger difference.  And really, we build on the work of those who came before and we’re dependent on others joining the struggle after us, too.

My experience as an historian leads me to understand that going against the automobile-fossil fuel-industrial complex and changing people’s living habits will not be easy, but neither was the abolition of slavery, the struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, or civil rights.  Indeed, as Naomi Klein has suggested in her latest book This Changes Everything, these movements for human rights must be seen as part of the larger struggle for peace, civil rights, economic justice, a livable planet, and livable social space.   Making our streets and communities safer and more convenient for alternative modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and transit) doesn’t solve all of these issues, but, properly understood, it is part of the solution that addresses each of them in part.

Change is happening, a movement is emerging.  Why am I an advocate?  I want to be a part of it—even if only a small part.  I don’t know exactly where the movement will lead, but that is what makes it exciting.

New Headquarters for BikeSGV

BikeSGV director Javier Hernandez reports on the need for a regional bike plan at BikeSGV's new headquarters in El Monte.

Javier Hernandez reports on the regional bike plan at BikeSGV’s new headquarters in El Monte.

Friday evening, BikeSGV, the local bike advocacy organization in the San Gabriel Valley, celebrated the grand opening of its new headquarters in El Monte and gave an update on the area’s regional bike master plan.  About 60 people attended the event despite Friday’s heavy rain.  The event offered an opportunity to celebrate progress on the SGV’s regional bike master plan and provide the community with an opportunity to hear about the ambitious plans for the new headquarters.

BikeSGV members bid on silent auction items.

BikeSGV members bid on silent auction items.

The open house included food, music, and a silent auction to raise money for the new headquarters.  BikeSGV director Javier Hernandez touted plans for the new headquarters, housed at the former site of Mulhall elementary in El Monte, for bike safety classes, bike maintenance workshops, a new bike co-op at Fletcher Park, as well as the continuation of BikeSGV’s regular Bike Train community rides and its Women on Wheels (WoW) group rides.   The superintendent of the El Monte school district was on hand, as well as staff representatives from the office of County Supervisor Hilda Solis.  The new headquarters, located less than a block from the Rio Hondo Bikeway, has the potential to be a center of bike culture in the region.

Phase 1 of SGV regional bike master plan.

Phase 1 of SGV regional bike master plan.

Hernandez also reported on the progress of the regional bike master plan for the San Gabriel Valley.  The bike master plan is absolutely crucial to the efforts to build safer streets in the region and make bicycle transportation a more realistic possibility for more people.  Central to this effort has been a push by BikeSGV to get city governments to support the first phase of this plan.  I attended the Baldwin Park city council meeting where the bike plan was approved last month and I was impressed with BikeSGV’s ability to bring people from the community—especially youth—to attend the meeting and speak on behalf of the plan.  Four of the five cities involved in phase 1 of the plan have officially signed on (Baldwin Park, Monterey Park, San Gabriel, and El Monte), and the remaining city (South El Monte) will vote on whether to support the plan in early 2015.  I hope they do.

Daniella Alcedo (L) of the Pomona Valley Bicycle Coalition, and Cuong Phu Trinh look over BikeSGV's plans at the open house.

Daniella Alcedo (L) of the Pomona Valley Bicycle Coalition, and Cuong Phu Trinh look over BikeSGV’s plans at the open house.

There are also plans for a “Phase 2” of the regional bike plan that includes five cities along the corridor of the Gold Line extension from Pasadena to Azusa.  In addition, BikeSGV is working with Metro to schedule two CicLAvia-style open streets events for 2015 and 2016 in the San Gabriel Valley.

Let’s face it, the San Gabriel Valley has been a backwater when it comes to bike-friendly infrastructure.  As someone who lives and bikes in this mostly bike-unfriendly zone, I look with envy on what other SoCal communities are doing.  Despite opposition from anti-bike troglodytes like LA council member Gil Cedillo, LA is making strides toward multimodal transportation, Santa Monica has seen its bike mode share grow by leaps and bounds, and Long Beach aspires to be America’s most bike-friendly city with its impressive network of bike lanes.  By comparison, it has been frustrating to see the San Gabriel Valley, with a few small exceptions, lag behind these other areas of the Southland in making the streets safer for people on bikes.  But Friday’s event is an indication that things may be changing.

I’ll admit I’m impatient for change.  We need more bike infrastructure, better bike infrastructure, and we needed it yesterday.  But it’s gratifying to see that after so many years of inaction, the San Gabriel Valley may finally become more accommodating for people on bikes.  Getting the various cities to sign on to a regional bike plan has been no small feat, and BikeSGV activists are to be congratulated for their hard work.  I’m hopeful that this new headquarters will enable the group to build on this foundation and grow the bike culture of the region.  Is it too much to hold out hope that we may be on the cusp of real infrastructure changes in the San Gabriel Valley?  As far as I’m concerned, these positive steps BikeSGV is taking to make the region a better, safer place to ride are very good news, indeed.

Just Keep Trying

Jim Shanman of Walk n' Rollers leads a bike safety lesson at Sierra Madre Middle School. At right, volunteer instructor Andrew Fung Yip of BikeSGV looks on.

Jim Shanman of Walk n’ Rollers leads a bike safety lesson at Sierra Madre Middle School. At right, volunteer instructor Andrew Fung Yip of BikeSGV looks on.

I haven’t posted on this blog for a while and it’s time to get back to it.  Partly, my absence has been to the usual things: work, family obligations, the busyness of life.  On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago I’d penned an angry rant about the average suburbanite’s laziness and unwillingness to get their fat asses out of their cars—even for their kids’ sake, but ultimately decided not to post it.  I wrote it at a low point, mostly as therapy.

My frustration stemmed from the low turnout at a bike festival I had put together to provide a free bike skills class at the local middle school.  After busting my tail to put this thing together, the turnout was anemic, and I couldn’t get any parents from the middle school to step up and help boost turnout.  A parent advisor for one of the student clubs who’d agreed to have some students paint a banner to publicize the event completely flaked out on me, and I wound up paying for flyers out of my own pocket.  Other parents to whom I’d appealed to bring their kids were no-shows.  I felt angry.

I’ve decided to look at the bright side, however.  The bike safety event at least provided an opportunity for a small number of students to learn safe bike skills and, while we had more instructors than students, it was still a fun event.  Jim Shanman of Walk n’ Rollers, a Culver City-based organization that puts on such events, and volunteers like Jackson, Nikki, Andrew, and Chris from Bike San Gabriel Valley, a local advocacy organization, put together a great program. The students who did participate really got a lot out of the experience, and I enjoyed watching them gain confidence handling their bikes, learning some basic maintenance and riding safely.  The compliments I got from the local Rotary Club that funded most of the event, the local PD, and  the school principal helped ease the frustration of dealing with apathetic parents.  And, at least there are a couple more kids in town who know how to ride safely and have more confidence doing so.  A follow up email from Jim Shanman lifted my spirits, too.  Really, if anybody wants to put together a youth-oriented bike event, contact Walk n’ Rollers.  They’re terrific.

The morning of the event, when I saw how few kids had brought their bikes to school, I swore I’d never do it again, but I’m at the point where I’m willing to consider trying again.  Maybe getting an earlier start with the local PTA and the student body leaders at the school.  Maybe I’ll take a different approach and make it a community event next year.  At any rate, I’ve decided I’m not going to give up.

It’s going to take a long time to break the stranglehold of the automobile on our suburban culture, but the change is necessary for so many reasons and youth are integral to changing the culture.  Next year, I’ll build on what I’ve learned and the event will be better.  It’s like learning to ride a bike.  If at first you don’t succeed ….

Parking or Transit?

A new study by researchers at USC showed that people who live within half a mile of LA Metro’s new Expo Line were driving significantly less—as much as 40% less than they did prior to the opening of the light rail line.  They also drove less, and had a lower carbon footprint than those who don’t live near transit.  This is excellent news, and most welcome to those of us who understand that driving is not hard-wired into Angelinos, but is a result of an infrastructure that has been built almost entirely around the automobile for the past 80-odd years.  The study showed that infrastructure matters.  If we build it right, we maximize the chances that many more people will leave their cars at home and take transit more often.

The study also contained some important insights about infrastructure around transit stations.  For example, the study found that those who walked to the Expo Line stations showed improvement in health as a result of the approximately 20 minutes of daily moderate physical exercise they got walking to and from the station and their destination.  The study also found that connectivity to bus networks increased use of the Expo Line.  One of the factors that decreased a person’s likelihood of walking to the station was the existence of a large arterial roadway with heavy automobile traffic that had to be crossed in order to reach the station.  Crossing streets with heavy automobile traffic is intimidating for many people, and in such cases, they wind up taking their cars instead.

So, if we want to increase the use of a light rail transit (LRT) facility, the study strongly suggests we should design it to be comfortably and safely accessed by bus, walking, or bicycling.  This means providing easy connections to bus transit, prioritizing safe pedestrian and bicycle access, and reducing heavy automobile traffic on streets around stations.  Improved bus service and a network of bike lanes leading to a station can significantly increase the radius of people who use those means to get to an LRT station.  On the other hand, if we want to decrease the likelihood that people will walk or bike to an LRT station (thus decreasing the health benefits that accrue), design it primarily around automobile access.

What about those people who live beyond the half-mile radius around a light rail station.  Unfortunately, for many Southern Californians the default answer is to promote automobile access.  Take Ms. Leda Shapiro, whose letter to the L.A. Times in response to the study complained that the study didn’t emphasize “the common practice … of parking your car at the station and taking the train.”  Ms. Shapiro apparently misses the point that the study, for good reason, was trying to measure how many people didn’t drive to the station, Ms. Shapiro then reverts to a car-centered default position in her understanding of the role of transit:  

It is time to demand that parking structures be built so we can park and ride and get our cars off the freeways.  Buses … do not run often enough outside normal working hours or are too unreliable.  Many more people could ride the train outside that walkable half a mile if there was parking available (even with a small fee).

While she’s not wrong to bemoan the paucity of good bus service in many areas of our city, I would argue that after a point, more automobile parking is actually counterproductive.  A major problem is that at a certain point plentiful automobile parking and (as the USC study demonstrated) the resulting heavy auto traffic may discourage people from walking or biking to the stations.  

But the problem of prioritizing automobile parking is broader than that.  Large parking lots and parking structures tend to make the approach to the stations more distant and time-consuming for people arriving on foot or bicycle, who have to travel further to reach the platform, and contend with entrances to the station designed for cars.  Moreover, the large physical footprint of a parking lot makes it more difficult to build transit-oriented shops and apartments within convenient walking distance of the station, because the function of the station changes from being one that is comfortably accessible on foot to one that is primarily accessible by car.  Light rail patrons who arrive by car are less likely to patronize small shops nearby, because they’ll get right in their cars and leave.  If they want to shop, they’ll be much more likely to patronize shopping centers with plenty of parking, perpetuating the auto-centered sprawl model of retail development.  Thus, stations with large parking lots don’t lend themselves to the kind of mixed-use development that entices people who live nearby to walk or bike to those local shops.  Let’s not forget that local shopping keeps more dollars in the local economy and creates local jobs, unlike the Wal-Mart style of retail centered around shopping by car.  Build transit for cars and we lose the virtuous cycle of car-light living and replicate some of the worst aspects of the automobile-centered lifestyle, such as sprawl, traffic, parking lot purgatories, and unhealthy sedentary travel habits.

Light rail transit should be designed to gradually shift people away from car dependency, not continue it.  If we want to get more people to use transit and further reduce traffic, our carbon footprint, improve our health, and our local economy, we should not “demand” more car parking, as Ms. Shapiro wants, instead we should demand more frequent and longer running local bus service to transit stations, more bike lanes and low-stress bike routes to those stations, good bike parking, and pedestrian-friendly streets in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The good news is, those pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure improvements are much less expensive than the infrastructure that must be built to accommodate significantly more car traffic.  And if we subsidized local bus transit to the same degree that we currently subsidize automobile parking, we could afford more frequent bus service.  And make no mistake, more frequent bus service is essential to make our cities less car-dependent.

So here’s a dilemma: do we build multi-billion dollar parking structures at all LRT stations that significantly raise the cost of building those stations?  As UCLA economist Donald Shoup has demonstrated, there’s no such thing as “free” parking.  What if the additional costs of building a large capacity park-and-ride facility (and they are considerable) make extending our LRT system so much more expensive that it becomes politically difficult to build more light rail?  I guarantee you, Ms. Shapiro and other car-dependent citizens will raise a ruckus if they have to pay parking fees sufficient to recoup the full cost of new parking facilities, so parking costs will likely have to be subsidized to entice them to bring their cars to the station.

I’m not saying new transit stations should lack any automobile parking, but motorists should be required to pay the full cost of providing parking.  Perhaps parking structures could be located away from the station, reducing traffic and the physical footprint of the station itself so that it is more convenient and welcoming for people arriving by bus, bike, or on foot.  Perhaps a few stations (at the end of a line, for example) might provide extensive park-and-ride accommodations while others should be designed primarily around transit, walkable, and bikeable access with a minimal amount of car parking.

We should pay close attention to the USC study’s encouraging results.  It proves that we can design transit and the surrounding infrastructure in a way that has the potential to alter people’s transportation choices.  Designing stations primarily for automobile parking may bring a few more drivers to the station in the short run, but it unfortunately tends to negate the other, more virtuous choices.  It is a trade-off we should carefully consider when building new LRT stations.

E-bikes

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

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

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

pedego city commuter

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

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

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

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

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

Bike to School

Bike2School2Today, May 8, was the second annual national Bike to School day.  This year, I helped organize a bike to school event for my local middle school, and the experience was both rewarding and exhausting.  The day dawned cloudy with just a hint of morning drizzle, which I think may have kept some families from participating, but we ultimately had about 12 kids and 4 parents participate in our group ride to school.

I was initially prompted to organize this event last fall after a student was struck by a car while bicycling to the local middle school.  Fortunately, the girl was not seriously injured, but I’ll never forget the sight of the girl’s bicycle wedged under that car’s front bumper, and I resolved to do something about it.

A little bit of research showed how much walking and bicycling to school have declined in the last few decades.  According to US DOT statistics, in 1969 almost 50 percent of American schoolkids walked or biked to school.  Today that number has declined to just over 10 percent.  I remember walking a little over a mile to the local elementary school when I was growing up, but in recent years, my wife and I almost always drove our kids to school, and statistically we’re pretty common.  Here’s the really sad part:  when my son was attending the local elementary campus, less than a quarter of a mile from our house, we drove him.  Every day.  Granted, there are no sidewalks on our street, and he’d have to cross the street where there’s no crosswalk at the corner where the bicyclist was struck, but that’s no excuse.  We could have walked with him.  Truth be told, my wife or I often walked to the school to pick him up at the end of the day, but on busy mornings, we got in the car.

There are many reasons for this, and parents I’ve talked to often cite safety as the number one reason they chauffeur their kids to and from school in cars.  Ironically, the mini-traffic jams our cars cause around schools twice a day are one of the main reasons the streets are less safe than they were 30 or 40 years ago.  The pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from literally millions of cars idling in front of schools across America is not inconsequential, either.  Moreover, we’re implicitly teaching our kids to depend on cars for every little trip, and the lack of exercise among young people is part of what has led to an obesity epidemic among American youngsters.

There is also a fear of predators expressed by parents.  While statistically, the chance of a predator attacking a child on the way to school is much smaller than a child getting killed in a car accident, the fear is nonetheless real.  This is why organized bike and walk to school events are so important.  They offer parents an opportunity to supervise a wholesome and environmentally friendly way to travel to school by organizing “bike trains” and “walking school buses.”  Young people get healthy exercise, develop knowledge of the rules of the road, and connect with their communities in a group setting.

These bike to school days don’t have to be every day, but can be once a week or once a month.  In the past year, my daughter and I have been bicycling to her school once a week (save a couple of days when it was raining pretty hard).  In addition to being great exercise for both of us, she’s learning to be more confident on the road, and it provides wonderful father-daughter time.

I’ve been feeling a little discouraged lately about the slow pace of change in this car-obsessed culture, and the magnitude of the environmental crisis that our addiction to fossil fuels exacerbates.  But there was real enthusiasm from the parents and kids on the ride.  The local PD offered a bicycle escort, and even stopped traffic at the two major intersections we rode through on the way to school, making the event stress-free for the kids.  The parents who participated are already talking about putting together more events of this sort to help kids learn to ride safely, and the local principal has been super supportive.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll break our dependency on cars.  One small step at a time.

CicLAvia to the Sea

Bike love

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

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

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

CicLAvia_jam

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

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

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

Cars and “Freedom”

DODGE_letfreedomrev copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Love Cars.

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