Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “bikes and health”

Cars and “Freedom”

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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.

The Tally

Riding w_trailer

After nearly seven months of going “car-lite” (that is, virtually car-free), I decided to do a year-end tally of the costs and benefits.

For the last 7 months, I have done almost all my commuting to work by a combination of bike and bus.  It takes longer, but fortunately I have a job that allows me to do some of my work while I’m riding the bus (checking email, doing routine paperwork, etc), and thus the time on the bus is not wasted time, as it is in the car.  I found that once I adjusted to the bus schedule, I actually arrived at work less stressed because I already had accomplished several tasks on the bus and I didn’t have to hassle with traffic and parking.  For part of my commute home, I ride my bike, which is necessary because the second leg of my two-bus ride stops running after 7 pm, and I must ride home (the absurdity of stopping bus service after 7 pm is the subject for another day).  The upside is that this bike ride home has become the most enjoyable part of my day.  I have figured out a route for this 10-mile ride that is relatively low stress because part of it is on a dedicated bike path and I’m able to take side streets for the remainder, on which traffic is relatively light during the time I’m riding.  It is a great way to unwind, de-stress, and get my cardio exercise.  This means I no longer have to go to the gym 3 days a week, which not only further reduces my driving but also combines my commute time and my exercise time.

As many of my readers know, I also run most of my errands by bike, and I’ve been using the cargo trailer to do most of my grocery shopping (see photo, above).  Again, once I figured out my route and my routine, it became as easy as taking the car and has the added benefits of reducing my automobile usage and providing me with more exercise.

I’m not superman.  I sometimes have used my car, like the day in October it was raining heavily and I was struggling to get over a nasty head cold.  I drove to work that day.  My arthritic knee gives me problems sometimes, and I might forego a big haul with the trailer on those days.  My wife still uses her car as she always has, and she takes my daughter to school most weekday mornings, and picks her up in the afternoon.  For family outings, we’ll usually all get in my wife’s minivan.  But my son, who goes to the local community college, has been using the bus to get to school, and my daughter and I ride our bikes to her middle school one day a week.  I’m not ready or willing to sell my car … yet.  Last weekend I finally had to fill my tank, but the fact is I’ve cut way down on my driving and I can actually imagine life without a car—something most of my fellow Americans cannot do.

So, what is my tally after 6 months of car-lite living?

Health:  When I embarked on this experiment, I used to work out about 3 days a week at the gym.  Since then, I have biked just about every day.  Sometimes it has been for a short ride to the post office or coffee shop, other days riding home from work, and still others pulling a cargo trailer loaded with groceries or other household supplies.  In that time I have not changed my diet (in fact, I think I eat a little more, because I’m always burning calories), and I’ve dropped 10 lbs, and about an inch in my waist.  Better yet, I feel great.  I no longer get winded as easily as I did before.  All-in-all, in addition to the physical well-being, my cycling has improved my mood, and I’m a much happier person when I ride my bike.

Money:  The last time I put gas into my car was June 7, 2012.  When I used to drive everywhere, I would need to fill my tank an average of about once every  9 days (less in the summer, when my work schedule slows down).  According to my estimation, adjusting for summer, this has saved me about 20 trips to the gas station since June.  The gas tank in my Corrolla holds about 10 gallons.  That means I’ve avoided burning about 200 gallons of gas since June.  If I estimate an average price of about $3.90 per gallon over that time period, that means I have saved about $780 in gas since June 7.  That’s almost $800 that stays in my pocket instead of going to pad the obscene profit margins of the likes of Exxon and BP.  The pleasure of sticking it to the oil companies: priceless.  My Corolla gets approximately 30 mpg, so that means I haven’t driven about 6,000 miles.  That’s an oil change for every 3,000 miles that I haven’t had to pay for.  At about $40.00 each at my local mechanic, that saves me about another $80.  Figure another $20 saved in parking.  My total estimated savings since June: about $880.

Environment:   According to the US EPA, each gallon of gasoline adds about 8887 grams (or a little over 19 lbs) of CO2 to the earth’s atmosphere.  This does not include the greenhouse gas produced by extraction and transportation of the fuel, so this is simply the CO2 coming from my tailpipe.  By not burning 200 gallons since June, I’ve avoided adding approximately 3,800 lbs of CO2 to the atmosphere—nearly 2 tons.  In addition, I’ve also avoided adding a significant amount of smog-producing crap like Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Ozone, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter (including brake and rubber dust) to the air we breathe as well.

Costs:  Of course, I had to buy a bike to commute with (about $1,200, when racks, fenders, lights, and pannier are factored in), and my croozer cargo trailer (about $120).  There are cheaper alternatives on the bicycle market, not to mention used bikes, but I am hard to fit and was looking for a particular bike setup, so I paid a bit more than one might expect for a commuter bike.  I have not bought any cycling-specific clothing, though I did buy a good rain shell ($100 on sale), helmet ($80), and cycling gloves ($20).  Total amount spent on commuter bike setup: about $1,500.

From a purely short-term economic standpoint, my bicycle commuting has cost me a little over $600 in 2012.  However, if I continue to commute by bike in 2013 (that is my intention), I should recoup the rest of those costs some time in the spring, depending on how often I drive this winter.  Longer-term, I think the benefits to my health and well-being (not to mention the environment) far outweigh the costs.

It has not been easy, but not because bicycling itself is hard.  The hardest part of my experience has been the time and effort dealing with an infrastructure designed around the automobile.  This necessitates taking time to scout out routes that are safe for bikes when traveling to a new place (nothing like finding yourself on an arterial road with cars whizzing by you at 45 mph and no bike lane) and the frustration of dealing with the lack of something as simple as a secure place to lock your bike at your destination.  Despite these difficulties, I am convinced that it is not only possible, but enjoyable, for the average suburban American to use a bike for at least some basic transportation needs. Even in the short term, it’s worth it.

Bikes and Exercise

Last week, a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine documented the longevity benefits of regular exercise.  The study noted that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise adds an average of 3.5 additional years of life, and 4.2 years for those who do an hour a day of “brisk walking or its equivalent.”  While these findings are not particularly surprising, what is surprising is the fact that such exercise benefits even those who are overweight or obese.  In other words, it’s not primarily how much you weigh that determines health, but how frequently and how regularly you exercise.

In our culture obsessed with thinness, this study helps us understand the overall importance of regular physical activity, rather than simply weight loss, as a marker of physical well being.  “We have to get people to understand that it’s not all about weight,” Dr. Robert Sallis of Kaiser Permanente commented on the study in the Los Angeles Times.  “Not everyone can lose weight, but everyone can get fit.”    Public health specialists said the study offered “very conclusive” proof that what the Times called “our widespread laziness,” is at least as much a problem as the obesity epidemic in the United States.

When I read such stories, it reinforces for me the critical necessity of public investment in bicycle infrastructure such as cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, and bike paths in our cities and suburbs.  Such infrastructure will encourage more people to change their sedentary lifestyle by making it safe and convenient for people of all ages and fitness levels to ride a bike for everyday transportation.  Many people lack the time, money, or will to join a gym and stick with an exercise regimen, but everyone needs to get to work, school, the store, or other nearby destinations.  If we designed our roadways to make it safer and more convenient for people to ride bikes to these destinations, more people—not just the relatively small proportion of hard core road riders—would use bikes as part of their everyday lives, improving their health and well-being at the same time.  Making it easy and safe to get from point A to point B on a bicycle (or by walking) will do more for public health in our communities than all the earnest exhortations to exercise, which tend to reach those already inclined to exercise.  The study also underscores the fact that the exercise need not be strenuous to offer widespread health benefits.  The belief that one must be on the latest carbon fiber race bike and train for a 100-mile ride intimidates many people who might otherwise ride to school, the store, or to a friend’s house.  We must design bike infrastructure to be welcoming to that vast majority of the population that are not elite athletes.

Add public health to the many reasons we need to shift our transportation design priorities away from the automobile and toward “complete streets” with protected space for bicycles and pedestrians.

CicLAvia 10.7.12

An estimated 100,000 people enjoyed 9 miles of car-free streets in L.A. yesterday at the fifth CicLAvia, L.A.’s recurring street party.  Those who have experienced it understand what an amazing feeling it is to enjoy the city by bicycle, without fear of having to tussle with cars.  Those who’ve experienced it understand the pleasure of gliding along some of L.A.’s usually-gridlocked avenues absent the constant thrum of engines, where the only sounds you’ll hear are the whisper of bike gears, laughter, conversation, and the occasional bicycle bell.

One of the things that leaves a lasting impression is the sheer volume of bicycles that are able to move smoothly through the streets of the city during CicLAvia.  Consider the traffic nightmare that would result from dumping over 100,000 cars onto 9 miles of L.A. streets all at once and you begin to understand the subtle ways in which CicLAvia changes our perception of what efficient use of street space is.  Indeed, that is perhaps the most radical, if not subversive aspect of CicLAvia:  it alters our understanding of city streets and what they might be used for.  Turns out, if you make some streets for people, not cars, they turn into space for play, exercise, socializing, and efficient transit from one place to another on foot or on two wheels.  It’s this re-imagining of urban space that reflects one of CicLAvia’s greatest achievements.

The other achievement is to break down the invisible walls that separate communities when they are bisected by roads that become impassable rivers of steel and concrete.  More than one participant I talked to yesterday remarked how they had never noticed L.A.’s people, its neighborhoods, or its architecture like they did from the vantage point of a bicycle.  Freed from having to watch for cars, they could look around, listen, and appreciate their surroundings.  For my part, CicLAvia has made me feel a deeper connection to L.A. than ever before.  I especially like the way CicLAvia provides a means for this middle aged white man from the suburbs to get to know the people and communities in South L.A., Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and everywhere in between.  It’s not just the places, it’s the people in them that I feel more connected to.

All of which reminds me that, while the automobile has brought certain benefits to society it has also impoverished us in ways we don’t often consider.  We are all enriched by the conversion of some street space to car-free space.

More Carmageddon?

Associated Press photo, Carmageddon 2011.

Could Carmageddon be good for us?  When a stretch of the always-gridlocked 405 freeway was closed for one weekend in July 2011, it spawned apocalyptic visions of L.A. drivers stranded in a sea of idling cars.  But, a funny thing happened.  Lots of people—especially on the Westside—didn’t drive that weekend.  They stayed near home.  They walked.  They rode their bikes.  They took transit.  In the end, traffic on the Westside was almost eerily light that weekend.

Now, a new study shows that keeping all those cars garaged had an astoundingly positive impact on air quality.  A research team at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that the L.A. basin experienced “a dramatic reduction” in air pollution the weekend of Carmageddon I.  The study found that there was a 25% reduction in pollutants across the entire basin compared to a “normal” weekend.  On the Westside, air quality was 75% better than normal and, in the neighborhoods near the 10-mile stretch of the 405 closed for the weekend, air quality was a whopping 83% better than a typical weekend.

Public health researchers have long known that exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks causes a host of health problems, including asthma, heart attacks, strokes, premature births, and other problems.  The closer one lives to a freeway, the more one is exposed to these pollutants, and the higher these rates of disease become.  These increased health risks, in turn, cost billions of dollars in health care-related expenses and lost productivity every year.

Now, here’s a modest proposal:  instead of spending billions of dollars to widen freeways to accommodate more cars (the purpose of the 405 closure), why don’t we use that money for expanding light rail, bus service, bike paths and bike lanes in the L.A. basin?  Why don’t we also factor in the health costs associated with air pollution into the gasoline tax, and use that money to help pay for health care?  We’re already paying those costs, we just don’t do enough to reduce our car addiction—the very thing that causes them.


Dodgertown Bike Ride

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of participating in what I hope will be the first of many bike rides to Dodger Stadium.  The inaugural Dodgertown Bike Ride was a wonderful, easy-paced 4-1/2 mile ride from Lincoln Park in East L.A. to Dodger Stadium, where our group of about 50 bicyclists enjoyed free bike parking and (perhaps best of all for Dodger fans) watched the Dodgers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 2-1.  To get to Lincoln Park, my son and I took the Gold Line from Pasadena to the Lincoln/Cypress station and rode through the Lincoln Heights area, which gave us a nice tour of a part of the city I had not visited in many years.  There is an Old L.A. charm to the neighborhoods on the Eastside, and the bike is a wonderful way to experience it.  After the game, the group took a leisurely route back through downtown L.A., taking in the sights and sounds of the city on a pleasant summer evening.

The ride was the brainchild of Carlos Morales, president of the Eastside Bicycle Club, and an inspiring advocate for cycling as a way to improve physical fitness, especially for youth in communities of color.  Morales is himself an example of the regenerative power of bicycling to improve health and well-being, having used his bicycle riding to overcome obesity in his own life.  He and the other club members have created a wonderful community organization that encourages people to get on their bikes and have fun.  It is an inclusive, friendly group that is open to all, and makes everyone feel welcome.  I think the group has a deep pride in its community and a warmth that exemplifies the best of East L.A.  You don’t have to be a racer, don’t need the latest bike gear, or the fancy lycra outfit.  Their philosophy is to ride, have fun, get exercise, and be safe.

The Dodgertown Bike Ride is a great way to show Angelinos that they need not rely on the car to get to Dodger Stadium, and the first time in the 50-year history of the stadium that such a large group of fans has bicycled to the stadium for a game.  The Dodgers organization made everyone feel welcome and stadium staff provided us with a parking area right next to the stadium entrance.  With bicycling becoming increasingly popular as a form of transportation in L.A., I have a feeling this ride is a harbinger of more good things to come from the Eastside Bicycle Club.

Bikes and Health

Driving to Obesity

Rates of obesity have reached epidemic proportions in the United States, according to public health experts, with roughly two-thirds of Americans classified as either overweight or obese.  This is the highest level in the world and poses a host of other health risks, from strokes and heart disease, to diabetes, arthritis, and some forms of cancer.  Obesity and obesity-related diseases are estimated to be responsible for $147 billion in healthcare costs every year.  Adult obesity rates in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1960.  What is even more alarming is that rates of childhood obesity are rising, with roughly 30 percent of American children under 18 classified as obese, and these children will be at much higher risk for serious illness in adulthood.

While the reasons for the epidemic are complex, two factors stand out as most important: diet and exercise.  Americans tend to exercise less and eat more processed fatty foods than people in other countries (though the rest of the world may catch up as we export our sedentary lifestyle and our super sized hamburgers and soft drinks to the developing world).  Moreover, for a number of reasons (having to do with lack of access to healthy food and lack of opportunity for exercise), obesity disproportionately affects low-income Americans and people of color.

We’ve become a nation addicted to driving, sitting in our cars rather than walking and bicycling to our local destinations.  According to a 2006 study by the Pew Research Center, the number of vehicle miles driven by Americans rose from just over 4,200 in 1977 to 8,200 in 2000.  By 2005, Americans spent an average of 100 hours behind the wheel each year and reported a 56% increase in the amount of time stuck in traffic since 1991.  We’re also teaching our children to be car dependent.  Look at a typical school in your neighborhood, where parents drive their children to and from school from as close as a few blocks away.  Rates of walking and bicycling to school have plummeted in recent decades, and it doesn’t help that physical education programs have been cut from school budgets.

Making streets safer for bicycling and walking by providing bike lanes and traffic calming measures would enable more Americans to get their recommended 20 minutes of daily exercise by walking or bicycling to local destinations.  Making it safe for children to walk or bike to school is one of the most important things communities can do to provide the means for young people to get daily exercise.  How wrongheaded, then, that Congress recently cut funding for the “Safe Routes to School” grants that helped communities provide safe opportunities for kids to walk and bike to school under adult supervision.

Bicycling to Health

A growing number of people, myself included, think that bicycling can be a big part of the solution to our nation’s obesity crisis.  For example, last Tuesday evening, I attended a community forum addressing youth obesity in Southern California, sponsored by KPCC and Bike SGV, that featured Carlos Morales, the founder of the Eastside Bicycle Club, who made bicycling a part of his healthy lifestyle and encourages others to do so by sponsoring community bike rides.  As Morales tells it, bicycling literally saved him from obesity.  Ten years ago, he was obese (defined as having a body mass index of more than 30), and profoundly unhealthy.  He dealt with the stress of his job by overeating, and usually came home from work too tired to exercise.  As part of a doctor’s regimen of diet and exercise, he began to ride his bike, one mile at first, then gradually building up the miles he was able to pedal.  The bike also helped relieve his stress, and gradually he began using his bike to get around town.  The more he did so, the more the weight came off.  Morales’s story is an inspiring illustration of how bicycling can help save us from the unhealthy trajectory we’re on, by getting people active, by providing economical, personal mobility so that people have more options to get to where they can buy healthy food, and especially, by getting young people started on a life where regular healthy physical activity is built into their lives.

(L to R) Jose Martinez, Dr. Eric Walsh, Carlos Morales, and Dr. Karen J. Coleman address the Crawford family forum in Pasadena on the problem of youth obesity in Southern California.

What is especially inspiring about Carlos Morales is that he is not only a living testament to the power of the bicycle to change people’s lives for the better, but he has brought that message to his community through his organization, the Eastside Bicycle Club, where he tries to inspire others.

One of the questions raised by forum moderator Jose Martinez was whether government policy can play a role in changing the built environment so that people can live healthier lives.   The answer, when it comes to bicycling is an emphatic yes.  In fact we’re already spending the money, but we spend it almost exclusively on a system of roads that are designed primarily for cars, despite the fact that cars contribute to the sedentary lifestyle and stress that contribute to the obesity epidemic.  Many people (especially parents) are understandably concerned about using a bicycle for part of their transportation because there are so few bike lanes and bike-friendly streets in our communities.  The good news is, for a tiny fraction of what we spend on one mile of freeway, we can reengineer hundreds of miles of roads to make them safer for bikes, by building bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other measures that provide safe space on our streets for people of all ages to walk or bicycle for personal mobility and exercise.

We must make the commitment to bike-friendly streets.  Our lives, and those of our children, literally depend on it.

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