Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “book review”

Book Review: Holy Spokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Can Cycling Save the World?

The eye-catching title of Peter Walker’s new book, How Cycling Can Save the World (2017), would probably have been enough to pique my curiosity, but my familiarity with the author’s excellent bike blog for The Guardian compelled me to snag a copy of the book.  I was not disappointed.

Is the title hyperbolic? Perhaps a little. But it is certainly true (and Walker has the data to back it up) that whether we’re talking about public health, road safety, social equity, air pollution, climate change, stress reduction and general happiness, or just overall livability, more people switching from cars to bikes would be a major improvement.

Walker lays out the health, economic, and environmental benefits of cycling in a compelling manner, drawing on a growing body of studies that support his thesis. The more cities turn to cycling, the more data we have to show the benefits of a shift away from car-centric cities. While his grasp of the academic literature is impressive (far too much to summarize here), it is often the personal stories that resonate the most.  For example, how riding to work makes him feel “not just physically invigorated but more cheery, with a greater sense of mental balance and well-being,” or how he can feel his body “untensing” when he moves from a street without bike lanes to one with them.  These and many other personal reflections make the book not only enjoyable, but personally relevant to many people who ride. These personal insights will also help those who don’t ride understand what the fuss is about.

He addresses the resistance of the political culture as well as anti-bike attitudes embedded in popular culture and media representations. One of my favorites was his chapter entitled “If bike helmets are the answer, you’re asking the wrong question,” which skewers the pervasive blame-the-victim mentality that accompanies many “safety” campaigns. If your answer to vehicular violence is to make vulnerable road users dress for combat, you’re designing your streets wrong. Time and again Walker returns to his central theme: the beneficial and transformative importance of building separated, continuous, and intuitive bike infrastructure in cities as the foundation of any effort to shift toward healthier, happier, safer, and more sustainable communities.

If all of this seems like the ultimate no-brainer (and it does to me), then why aren’t we moving more quickly to build what has been shown to work everywhere it has been tried?  Walker suggests it can be boiled down to vested interests, inertia, and lack of political vision (or as I like to say, the lack of leaders who “get it”).  Bogged down by the these all-too-real barriers to change, we are left with an excruciatingly slow process of ever-so-timid incrementalism that leaves us with partial, piecemeal scraps of half-assed bike infrastructure and huge gaps where bike infrastructure is nonexistent. And if that weren’t bad enough, we have to fight like hell for the scraps while multi-billion-dollar freeway projects and car-centric developments seem to move forward on autopilot.

Part of the problem of incrementalism, as Alex Steffen has written, is that it maintains the ills of the old system while not yet providing the goods of the new system.  In other words, you don’t get a truly bikeable community until you actually have a network of bike infrastructure that works for cyclists from ages 8-80 (protected, continuous, and intuitive) and is integrated into a good public transit system.  These have to be knitted together in communities (not just streets) that are oriented around walking, biking and transit.  In this respect, ambitious steps are preferable to incrementalism.  In the absence of a bold—dare I say revolutionary—vision, inertia and even reactionary reversal may become appealing political modes. We don’t have decades to dawdle.

Since WWII, we have given our minds, bodies, and public space to the automobile monoculture.  I would argue that acting boldly to reverse this is imperative given the looming intemperance of climate change. The good news, as Walker shows, is that people in cities all over the world are pushing for change, slowly remaking their cities around bikeability, and it works.

Yes, it would seem that in a variety of interconnected ways it’s not a stretch to say cycling just might be able to save the world, or at least make it a much better place.  Peter Walker “gets it.”  Read his book and you will too.

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.

Loving LA The Low Carbon Way


Loving LA The Low Carbon Way: A Personal Guide to the City of Angels via Public Transportation, by Grace E. Moremen & Jacqueline Chase, (Claremont, CA: Dreamboat Press, 2015).

This delightful little guidebook will take you to some of L.A’s wonderful world class attractions as well as lesser known out-of-the-way places—all of it car-free.  For those unfamiliar with LA’s transit system, the book (and the companion website) offers a primer on LA transit, and illustrated, easy-to-follow directions.  For those familiar with LA’s transit system, the book offers a few surprises, and while I’ve done almost half of these car-free trips, I’m looking forward to trying the others.  Either way, there’s no better way to really see LA, or any city for that matter, than by taking transit, walking, and/or biking.

Loving LA begins with a basic overview of LA geography, including its freeways, the downtown area, and the immediate neighborhood of LA Union Station (which forms the hub of all of the book’s adventures).  The authors note the irony of their map of the freeways, “those very things that we are trying to avoid,” but they may help car-free travelers who are used to orienting their knowledge of LA geography around its freeway system.  Since transit systems orient themselves around “hubs” (i.e., key transit stations) and “spokes” (transit lines) the book provides an easy-to-read map of Union Station and how to find the various bus and rail lines located there.  They explain the basics of transit in LA, including how to use a TAP card, fares on different LA bus lines (LA Metro, LADOT DASH buses, and Santa Monica’s Big Blue buses).  They also have a handy website with maps and updates that allows you to find more information or access via any mobile device.  Once you’re armed with the basics, it’s time to explore any of their 24 adventures in LA car-free!

I love the book’s low carbon mission and the way it illustrates the interconnection between car-free travel and a true embrace of the city.  However, LA’s car-free culture is moving so quickly, that future editions will want to include the extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica, and the emergence of bike share programs in Santa Monica and Downtown LA (scheduled to expand to Pasadena in 2017).

Metro Bikeshare, DTLA. (Photo: StreetsblogLA).

Metro Bikeshare, DTLA. (Photo: StreetsblogLA).

Indeed, while the authors do mention the accessibility of bikes on transit, these adventures largely ignore the bicycling option, which leaves an unintentionally misleading impression that transit combined with biking isn’t an equally useful way to see the city.  They note, for example, that the Huntington Library and Gardens is “too far away” from transit (in this case, the Gold Line or the 1.4mi to Metro and Foothill Transit bus lines on Colorado Blvd.), and thus advise readers that “a car will be necessary” for that trip.  It’s a shame they don’t offer some advice on the feasibility of using a bike to solve these “first mile / last mile” gaps.  Doing so would extend the reach of their low carbon adventures.  Even if Moremen and Chase don’t themselves bike, they might consider including information on the availability of bike parking (and bike share) at their destinations for those who do.

That said, this book is a wonderful little guide to seeing the sights of LA car-free.  Moremen and Chase have written a car-free love letter to LA with the intimacy one can only have outside the confines of the private automobile and its damnable freeway/parking lot matrix.

Moremen, an LA native, writes that despite LA’s troubled history, seeing LA car-free makes her optimistic for the city.  LA’s burgeoning transit system “makes its beauty and its resources more accessible to people in various ways.”  Chase, a transplant from Greenwich Village whose car-free spirit would make Jane Jacobs proud, has come to appreciate the way public transportation could reveal “the gems of this city, many hidden in plain sight.”  Outside the confines of the automobile culture, Chase writes:

I have come to know LA on a more human scale as we have journeyed through the neighborhoods on foot and by bus, light rail, and Metrolink.  The urban myth that people in big cities are unfriendly was definitely debunked for us.  On each of our adventures we have found the people of LA to be helpful and friendly.  LA is one great city! [xviii]

I love this book because it reflects the growing car-free movement in the quintessential “Car capital of the world,” and reveals the richness of social life outside that stultifying, unsustainable mode of transportation.  One cannot help but be caught up in their enthusiasm and that sense that comes from really seeing the city for the first time, of simultaneous independence and social connectedness that comes from getting around a city car-free.

So what are you waiting for?  Get this book and a TAP card, ditch the car, and fall in love with LA!

Street Fights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bike Battles


James Longhurst, author of Bike Battles. (Photo: Rory O'Driscoll, LaCrosse Tribune).
Author James Longhurst. (Photo: Rory O’Driscoll, LaCrosse Tribune).

Bike Battles, a new history of bike culture in the US by UW-LaCrosse history professor James Longhurst (University of Washington Press, 2015), tells the fascinating story of the legal and political battles over bicycles on the road.  Subtitled “A History of Sharing the American Road,” the book provides a background to today’s arguments over bike lanes, sharing the road, road diets, complete streets, and so on.  Viewing the road as a commons, a shared, limited, and necessary resource, he provides a detailed account of how this public resource came to be dominated and virtually monopolized in the mid-20th century by one user—the driver of the private automobile.  The outcome was neither inevitable, nor, as some might assume, primarily the result of Americans’ mythic “love affair” with the car or of free consumer choice.  It was the result of a complex interplay between public policy choices, law, design choices, the economics of road-building, and cultural shifts in the perception and marketing of the bicycle.  Longhurst’s book will be useful to anyone interested in the history of bike policy and roads in the US.  As Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic shows how motor vehicle interests (“motordom”) marginalized pedestrians, Longhurst’s book illustrates how bicyclists were also marginalized.

Longhurst’s history of roads combines information that I was familiar with, such as the “good roads” movement that was originally spearheaded by bicyclists during the so-called “golden age” of cycling (ca. 1880-1910), with much new information that I was less familiar with.  For example, he highlights the importance of  Taylor v. Goodwin, an 1879 court case in Britain involving a high-wheel bicycle that established the bicycle as a legal vehicle with a right to the road.  The Taylor decision provided an important precedent subsequently followed by American courts.  However, case law establishing that bicycles had the same right to the road as other vehicles did not end conflict over road space, especially as the motor vehicle created a new set of conflicts on the road, and a new level of potential deadliness to other road users.

Sidepath, New York, ca. 1900. (People for Bikes)

Sidepath, New York, ca. 1900. (People for Bikes)

With the emergence of the automobile it became clear that some form of physical separation between bikes and cars was desirable, and there was a brief period when “side paths” for bicycles were built along many roads.  The perception of bicycling as an elite activity made separate infrastructure seem like a luxury for the benefit of a relative few and bicycle advocates failed to secure a steady source of funding for building and maintaining sidepaths.  Unfortunately, lack of funding doomed these promising efforts and the experiment was abandoned as the miles of sidepaths that existed were simply swallowed by roads that were widened for the automobile.  As the first bicycle boom ended in the 1920s, policymakers gave little thought to providing road space for bikes, and, except for a brief resurgence of bicycling during World War II, bikes gradually came to be marketed in mid-20th century American culture as primarily a means of mobility for kids until they were old enough to drive.

Protected bike lane, 1970s, Davis, CA (Streetsblog)

Protected bike lane, 1970s, Davis, CA (Streetsblog)

The next effort to build separated bike infrastructure in the US occurred during the second “bike boom” of the 1970s.  Longhurst analyzes the boom within the context of the rise in environmental consciousness in the early 1970s combined with the Mideast oil embargo.  These, along with reduced tariffs on lightweight, inexpensive Japanese-made bikes and components contributed to the boom in adult cycling.  California became the epicenter of innovative ideas for separated and protected bike lanes in the US.  Davis, California was among the first US cities to build separated bike lanes, and the university town became a model for bike-friendliness, a distinction it holds to this day.  Planners from UC Davis and UCLA wrote a groundbreaking study in 1972 that advocated the building of networks of separated bike lanes throughout the US where automobile traffic was heavy.  Longhurst notes that the California legislature passed a bill in 1973 to permanently earmark 1 percent of the state’s gas tax revenue to build bicycling infrastructure.  Things looked promising, but Ronald Reagan’s veto of the bike bill and a schism in the ranks of bicyclists between planners and “vehicular cyclists” who opposed separating cyclists from traffic thwarted plans for separated bike infrastructure of the kind called for by the UCLA study.  Yet another missed opportunity.

Cycle Track, Washington DC, 2014 (Bethesda Magazine)

Cycle Track, Washington DC, 2014 (Bethesda Magazine)

Today, in many cities around the world, we are witnessing a bicycling “renaissance.”  Along with this renaissance there is a renewed effort to establish separated road space for cyclists in the United States.  Longhurst’s timely study shows that the arguments over bikes and road space are not new and also holds lessons for present-day bicycle advocates who would be wise to avoid the mistakes that scuttled earlier efforts to build bike infrastructure in US cities.

Unlike the two earlier bike booms, this one seems to have a broader constituency and, one hopes, more stable funding.  Urban planners understand the need for multimodal commuting as we grapple with the interconnected problems of traffic congestion, sprawl, and climate change.  Public health advocates increasingly see “active transportation” as a public good, and the bicycling movement shows healthy signs of diversifying, spreading beyond recreational cycling and emphasizing the social equity aspect of bikes as economical transportation.  A growing number of people are realizing that a reallocation of road space will be necessary (though one must not underestimate the tenacity of drivers’ opposition).  One hopes that the current efforts to build world class bike infrastructure in the US will not fall victim to the fate that befell the two earlier efforts.  As Longhurst concludes: “[i]n the future, more than ever, we’ll need to share the road.” (p. 241)

The Wisdom of Jane Jacobs

When a person walks, uses a bike, or public transit for transportation, he/she very quickly realizes most of our street designs give very little thought to the needs of these other modes.  That goes for the layout of most of our cities, as well as much of our car-centered architecture.  Most people assume this is the natural order of things and must have always been this way, but as an historian I know that our built environment has a history and the more I studied the writings of those who think about such things, the more I encountered the name of Jane Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs near her home in New York City. Photo:

Jane Jacobs near her home in New York City. Photo:

Who was Jane Jacobs?  Her talents were so wide-ranging, it’s hard to pin down a description, really.  She was a mother and a housewife, a self-taught architectural analyst and critic, a journalist, what we would call today a “community organizer,” a social critic and a crusader for the survival of human-centered city life.  She attended classes at Columbia University and even authored a history of the Constitutional Convention called Constitutional Chaff, which examined the rejected suggestions of the framers.   She was the author of numerous other books and articles, but she is best remembered today for her classic 1961 critique of mid-20th century urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  She is a prime example of a socially engaged public intellectual.  What enduring wisdom does Jane Jacobs offer a half century after her most important work was published?

I became especially intrigued with Jacobs after reading Anthony Flint’s excellent Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, which tells the story of her epic battle against Robert Moses and his plans to use “urban renewal” and expressways to remake Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s.  The efforts of Jacobs and her neighbors to stop a number of ill-conceived car-first projects almost certainly saved her Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park neighborhood from destruction by highways.  She was a pioneer in the fight to reclaim cities (and social life) from automobile domination.  Such efforts become even more urgent as we wrestle to tame the outsized carbon footprint of the automobile-based civilization we created in the 20th century.  As David Owen and others have argued, cities with good transit and people-friendly (not car-friendly) design have the potential to light the way to a much more sustainable future for a large proportion of the world’s population.

In Death and Life, Jacobs offered a critique of the dominant post-WWII schools of urban planning, with their focus on decentralization, grandiosity, and bland uniformity.  She provided a detailed discussion of elements that make neighborhoods and streets attractive, livable, and safe, using her own Greenwich Village neighborhood as an example.  She coined terms such as “eyes on the street,” to describe how neighbors in dense neighborhoods watch out for each other, and the “intricate sidewalk ballet,” to describe the relative safety and rhythm of busy city streets.  She celebrated short blocks with wide, tree-lined sidewalks that were pedestrian and child-friendly, and appreciated the diversity of people, uses, and buildings in urban neighborhoods.  Finally, she zeroed in on the ways cities could be saved from destruction, including a particularly fascinating chapter on the inherent conflict between living cities and automobility.

Jacobs argued that the social life of the city was incompatible with a large volume of automobiles.  She claimed not to be anti-car, saying the problem was not cars themselves, but “vehicular dominance,” resulting “mainly from overwhelming numbers of vehicles to which all but the most minimum pedestrian needs are gradually and steadily sacrificed.” [346]  The virtue of walkable streets was not the complete absence of cars, she noted, but the absence of automobile domination.  This meant that cities must “reduce the domination by cars” in order to create walkable, bikeable, and livable streets.

Too much dependence on private automobiles and city concentration of use are incompatible.  One or the other has to give.  In real life, this is what happens.  Depending on which pressure wins most of the victories, one of two processes occurs: erosion of cities by automobiles, or attrition of automobiles by cities. [349]

She detailed how city street space was eroded by the widening of streets, the marginalization of pedestrians, highways and, especially, parking lots.  These efforts to accommodate the insatiable space requirements of cars elbow aside all other uses and create dull streets and “border vacuums” that effectively become anti-social space destructive of the multitude of uses a healthy city street possesses.  She also detailed the symbiotic relationship between the automobile and sprawl, leading to more automobile dependence, in turn leading to more space given to cars, ad infinitum.

Typical border vacuum, Pasadena, CA. Car-dependent shopping center on left, freeway on right create unsafe space devoid of all social life, except, perhaps crime.

Typical border vacuum, Pasadena, CA. Car-dependent shopping center on left, freeway on right create bland, noisy, and unsafe space devoid of all social life, except perhaps, crime.

Her observations help us to see that the erosion of city livability stems from the prioritization of the private automobile, and also that its use is further encouraged by these measures, what urban planners now refer to as “induced demand.”  In what might be seen as the precursor to today’s idea of “road diets” bike lanes and pedestrianized streets, Jacobs advocated “giv[ing] room to other necessary and desired city uses that happen to be in competition with automobile traffic needs.” [363]  She made the radical argument that if we don’t give in to the demand for greater automobile convenience by, say, widening roads or providing additional parking garages, and if we provide alternatives, such as transit, enough people will avoid driving, and thereby reduce the absolute number of vehicles on the road and improve the quality of life for all.

While there are additional examples of this today, in 1961 one of the few example of this phenomenon (what urban planner Jeff Speck calls reduced demand) was Jacobs’s own experience blocking a planned highway through Washington Square Park.  Traffic engineers predicted gridlock if the highway was not built, but the predicted cars never materialized.  “Where have the traffic commissioner’s annual millions of cars gone instead?” she asked.  She came up with the radical idea that there is no absolute number of drivers any more than there is an absolute number of transit users or bicyclists.  The numbers of each, she pointed out, “vary in response to current differentials in speed and convenience among ways of getting around.”  [363]  In other words, when the design of our roads and cities makes driving the fastest and most convenient way of getting around, that is what people will choose to do.  When we make other modes of transit more convenient and faster, the numbers will shift.

Attrition of automobiles operates by making conditions less convenient for cars. Attrition as a steady, gradual process . . . would steadily decrease the numbers of persons using private automobiles in a city.  If properly carried out . . . attrition would decrease the need for cars simultaneously with decreasing convenience for cars, much as, in reverse, erosion [of other modes] increases need for cars simultaneously with increasing convenience for cars. [emphasis added, 363]

Her argument about induced demand was almost unheard of in 1961, and still escapes the grasp of many traffic engineers and politicians who think the answer to the problem of too much automobile traffic congestion is to make room for (and create further demand for) even more cars by widening roads and freeways, building more parking garages, supporting sprawl development, and so on.  Here in Southern California I see it in the reluctance of some politicians to embrace road diets on the one hand and the misguided use of public transportation money to widen freeways and extend others (i.e., the multi-billion-dollar 710 extension that won’t die).  Until and unless we decrease the convenience afforded automobile travel by, for example, making it more expensive through congestion pricing, higher parking costs, and so forth; and increase the convenience of other modes, such as bicycling and public transit, we won’t be able to “solve” the problems that ultimately stem from too many cars.

In real life, which is quite different from the life of dream cities, attrition of automobiles by cities is probably the only means by which absolute numbers of vehicles can be cut down.  It is probably the only realistic means by which better public transportation can be stimulated, and greater intensity and vitality of city use be simultaneously fostered and accommodated. [363]

Herein lies a hard truth for those who advocate hybrids or EVs or self-driving Google cars as the solution to our environmental and transit woes.  The problem with cars is only partially an issue of what comes out of the tailpipe.  After all, Jacobs notes, at the turn of the 20th century cars were seen as a sanitary improvement over the heaps of horse excrement left by the previous dominant mode of transportation.  Jacobs gets us to see that the problem is primarily one of numbers and scale, and that the number of cars is directly influenced by the design of space, and that use and convenience follow.  The more space provided for cars, the less can be provided for people (unless you sprawl ever outward, which creates even more car dependent spaces).  That is why she thought our key choice was the erosion of cities or the attrition of automobiles.

Creating streets that appeal to people and that are safe and convenient for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit requires mustering the political will to inconvenience drivers.  It means shifting funding priorities to redesign of streets around transit, bikes and pedestrians.  To paraphrase Bogota’s Gil Penalosa, we can have cities for people or cities for cars.  We can’t have both.  Mrs. Jacobs knew it.  Will we learn it?

Attrition of automobiles: Pioneer square, Portland, OR. people-friendly space created from what was once a municipal parking lot.

Attrition of automobiles: Pioneer square, Portland, OR. people-friendly space created from what was once a municipal parking lot.

Homage to JHK


With a couple of days left on my spring break, I pulled out a copy of James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, his 1996 call for a reassessment of suburban sprawl and its attendant social and ecological problems.  He is a particularly astute observer of the contradictions and blind spots in our thinking about the automobile, and doesn’t mind telling us we’ve fucked up.  Big time.

His arguments aren’t necessarily new, and are part of a growing body of literature critical of the car-centered suburban mode of social organization, but nobody lays it on the line quite like JHK.  He’s a cross between Lewis Mumford and Hunter S. Thompson.  He’s acerbic, scathing, unflinching, and bracing.  He’s a bit of a cynic and a curmudgeon, but he cuts through the bullshit and lays a withering scowl upon what he calls our “geography of nowhere”—suburban sprawl.  At the center of this heart of darkness is the automobile, the totem of a society gone profoundly antisocial and, at times, quite mad.  One of my favorite scenes is from his dystopian post-automobile age novel, The Long Emergency, set in the not-too-distant future when the combination of petroleum shortages, nuclear war, and climate change have doomed the unsustainable “American way of life.”  In a brutal dissection of the pathological depth of our psychological dependence on the car, one of his characters sits in his beloved automobile and puts a bullet in his own head rather than continue to live in a world without cars.  JHK is the tonic answer to the sickly-sweet carbonated sugar water of American car culture.

Of our penchant for equating cars with “freedom,” Kunstler writes in Home from Nowhere, “[t]his is the freedom of a fourteen-year-old child,” a freedom to do whatever we want, consume whatever we want, heedless of the consequences.  When the consequences (highway deaths, polluted air, climate change) become too obvious to ignore, the tendency is to put our faith in techno-solutions, despite the fact that they ignore the root of the problem and are evidence of the peculiar blindness of wishful thinking.  He dissects the fallacy that the electric car will save us from the destructive effects of the automobile, likening it to “the old joke about the guy who decides to make his blanket longer by cutting off twelve inches from the top and sewing it onto the bottom.”  He lays out the economics of the automobile as clearly as anyone and one realizes how deeply we’re in hock to these tin cans on wheels.  The more money we pour into the car system, the more congested our roads become, the more money we throw at it, the more dependent we become on it, the more congested it becomes, and so on.

In a society living in a deep state of denial about automobiles, it should come as no surprise that politicians tend to pander to this addiction.  Rather than asking the average voter to confront the uncomfortable truth that the age of the automobile is coming to an end—must come to an end for its economic and ecological unsustainability—they promise more and wider freeways, the cost be damned, as a panacea for the problems caused by, well, more and wider freeways.  It’s not as if transportation engineers don’t know the consequences of more, wider freeways.  Indeed, they have a term for the inevitable congestion that will follow: induced demand.  Happens every time.  As JHK points out, “we have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing.”

Despite our auto-sociopathy, there is another way.

I believe that our utter dependence on the automobile must come to an end.  Society can no longer afford the cultural phenomenon of mandatory mass car ownership.  Whatever cars might run on in the future, we will have to use fewer of them and less often.  We are going to need places that are worth dwelling in, from which we won’t feel compelled to escape every moment we are not working. … an intelligently designed town can easily provide access to the needs and wishes of people in everyday life by public transit, walking, and biking.  The models for these places already exist.  They’re called London, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Munich, Oxford, Perugia, and Zurich.

More people are beginning to see this, but there are powerful cultural and economic interests working against such a transformation.  The odds are long, but the stakes are high, and will only get higher the longer we wait.

Cars and the Environment Pt. 2

In my review of Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania (Cars and the Environment pt. 1), we explored the unprecedented environmental harm resulting from the mass production and use of motor vehicles.  Whereas McCarthy argues that consumer decision-making drove the automobile to its apex in modern American life, our next author, Christopher Wells, places those consumer decisions in the context of local and national government policies that created a physical environment that virtually required car ownership for full membership in society.


Wells’s book, Car Country: An Environmental History (University of Washington Press, 2012) provides a context for those consumer decisions.  If, after all, one is dependent on the automobile because of an infrastructure designed primarily for automobility, how free are those consumer decisions?  And how did this infrastructure come to be so dominant?  Wells sets his interpretation apart from what he calls the “love affair thesis” (i.e., that America’s love affair with cars is the primary explanation for our car-dominant society) and what he calls the “conspiracy thesis” (i.e., that automobile dominance occurred as a result of a cabal of automobile manufacturers and oil companies removing streetcars and weakening public transportation).

Wells argues that we must look at the broader patterns of land use and development that shape people’s transportation needs and choices.  Put bluntly, when developers and government agencies design a landscape to be accessed primarily by automobiles, they create a “car country” that virtually requires automobile ownership.  If, on the other hand, a society designs mixed-use landscapes that are conveniently accessible by walking, bicycling, and transit, people will find it easier to get along without a car.  He contrasts his own experience growing up in car-centric suburban Atlanta, where he was dependent on a car, and where he cherished his beloved Toyota pickup with his later experience living in Switzerland, where he found it easy (and inexpensive) to get around without a car and where, he notes, “I never really missed having a car.”  When he returned to the US, he tried cycling for transportation but it “felt dangerous” once he got beyond the confines of his own neighborhood where “a crush of traffic had enveloped the city in the 1980s.”  He concluded from his own experience that “How I felt about cars had little bearing on whether or not I needed one.”  Thus, he seeks to understand how people’s need for a car influenced how they felt about cars, and he provides a social and environmental context for Americans’ widespread use of the car by the end of the 20th century.  Wells makes a persuasive case that land-use patterns, not attitudes (i.e., the “love affair”) are the strongest determinant of a transportation system’s success, whether it is transit-based or car-based. (pp. xx-xxv)  Critics of the car have tended, he says,

to focus on cars rather than roads and on the behavior of drivers rather than the powerful forces shaping American land-use patterns.  (xxxiv)

Wells is at his best getting us to “think about landscapes,” and the impact they have on people’s decisions about driving.  He contrasts older “streetcar neighborhoods” of the pre-automobile era that were organized around streetcar routes with walkable distances between housing, shopping, and other neighborhood destinations, and the post-WWII “exit ramp neighborhoods” zoned as single-use, geographically separated areas designed to be conveniently accessed only by automobile.  The process did not happen by itself, but was facilitated and accelerated by government policies that drove highway design and funding while neglecting public transit and FHA loan guidelines that favored suburban housing and retail developments zoned for single-use.  Meanwhile older, mixed-use streetcar neighborhoods were frequently neglected or destroyed by freeway construction and “urban renewal.”  Wells shows that the postwar drive to the suburbs was indeed a “choice,” but it was a choice that was virtually the only rational one for many people, given the fact that its immense costs were effectively socialized by federal, state, and local policies.   Once the process began, it locked in the auto-centered lifestyle, leaving people few convenient alternatives to the car.

streetcar vs. car design

Wells reiterates the tremendously destructive environmental impact of the automobile highlighted by Tom McCarthy, underscoring the imperative to change the policies that lead to car-dependence for millions.  He also highlights the immense challenge this will pose, for the costs of car-dependence are often invisible on an individual level:

Both smog and climate change illustrate a persistent theme in environmental politics: problems that seem negligible or unimportant on an individual scale can, once aggregated, have national or even global environmental implications.  Because the problems do not become clear until after large numbers of people are involved, the damaging behaviors have often accrued both widespread social acceptance and economic importance.  Moreover, the causal linkage between seemingly harmless behaviors … and environmental problems … frequently requires elaborate scientific explanation.  This creates opportunities for entrenched interests to challenge the science … which often take time and study to disprove.  As a result, “attack, delay, and ask for more research” has proven a fruitful strategy for those hoping to avoid new environmental regulations.  Moreover, because such problems frequently necessitate sweeping changes in established behaviors, effective regulations are frequently intrusive and perceived as onerous. (p. 351)

Applied to the effort to move people away from auto-dependence, this theme suggests a daunting challenge lies ahead for those of us who seek to build a new infrastructure around alternatives to the automobile.  Nevertheless, Wells’s study proves that Americans are not hard-wired to love cars, and that creating more compact, mixed-use developments in cities and even suburbs around good transit and safe streets for bicycling and walking can wean Americans from their environmentally destructive and unhealthy auto habit.  It also suggests that for many people changing attitudes are likely to follow, rather than precede, a change in our infrastructure.

Cars and the Environment (Pt 1)


As an historian, my summer reading lists lean heavily toward nonfiction history.  As an advocate for bicycling, transit, and complete streets, it may strike some as odd that I’m interested in the history of the automobile, but there’s no question that, for better or worse, the automobile has reshaped our world and it behooves those of us who are critical of the car-centered transportation system to understand it in all its complexity.  To that end, I will be reviewing two recent scholarly histories on my summer reading list that explore the social and environmental impact of the automobile and my reflection on what this means for moving our culture away from its auto dependency.  I’ll provide these reviews serially, so that I can give sufficient attention to each.

The first study under review is Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007), which explores what McCarthy sees as Americans’ “love affair” with the automobile from an environmental standpoint.  According to McCarthy, this “love affair” was the result of millions of consumer decisions, and the car as a medium for Americans’ psychological and social desires.  In other words, the car has played a central role in 20th century American society, McCarthy argues, because it has been much more than a mode of transportation, it has been an expression of economic success and social identity, Americans’ “chief talisman of successful belonging.” (p. 47)  While McCarthy thinks Americans’ consumer-driven car culture has been significantly  influenced by the auto industry’s marketing strategies, he argues that consumers have not always been passive recipients of industry marketing.  He provides examples of consumers acting in ways that auto manufacturers did not expect, such as the rise of the simple Volkswagen in the 1950s and 1960s as a counterpoint to Detroit’s “bigger is better” mentality.  Thus, he sees cars as providing consumers with important cultural capital, beyond the utilitarian aspect.  As such, any effort to shift toward a multi-modal transportation system must grapple with the deep psychological attachment Americans have to their cars.

McCarthy’s assessment of the environmental consequences of the “love affair” with cars is the strength of this study.  By the 1940s, the environmental impact of the use of automobiles and the burning of gasoline for personal propulsion became obvious and prompted an unprecedented government regulatory apparatus to deal with it.  Los Angeles, “car capital” of the nation, not only had some of the nation’s worst smog, but led the effort to regulate it when it became apparent that the smog was negatively affecting the region’s carefully crafted image as a tourist destination. (pp. 116-17)  It is sobering to realize that the industry resisted smog controls for decades, meaning that effective reduction of smog in US cities did not occur until the 1970s following the mobilization of the environmental movement.  Ultimately, it was a mobilized citizenry demanding government regulation, rather than consumer choice and the free market that cleaned the air in Los Angeles. (p. 254-55)  There are important lessons in McCarthy’s book for the effort to regulate carbon emissions today, since it can be argued we don’t have the luxury to wait decades for the industry to shift away from business as usual.

Where McCarthy is at his most trenchant, is his unpacking of a major portion of the oversized environmental footprint of the automobile, from raw material extraction through manufacturing, use, and disposal.  While consumer demand may have driven the industry, McCarthy argues, that demand created unprecedented environmental problems.  By the 1920s, auto manufacturers were (and still are) among the world’s largest consumers of raw materials such as iron, steel, rubber, plate glass, leather, lead, zinc, and aluminum.  Modern strip-mining techniques were pioneered and expanded in order to meet the insatiable demand of the auto industry, deeply scarring the land.  Manufacturing cars produced unprecedented levels of industrial pollution:

Fly ash, iron oxide, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and or course, millions of tons of carbon dioxide belched from the smokestacks of the coke ovens, blast furnaces, foundries, steel mills, and plants of American steel and auto industries.  Iron, sulfuric acid, cyanide, phenols, and heavy metals poured into the sewers and rivers that served as liquid waste conduits away from the plants.  (p. 46)

  A full environmental accounting of the automobile industry would indeed be a vast undertaking, involving an assessment of the environmental impacts not only of the major manufacturers, but the thousands of smaller suppliers the industry relies upon.  A total environmental accounting is beyond the scope of McCarthy’s study, but even focusing on one manufacturing plant, Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI, offers evidence of the profoundly troubling environmental legacy of the industry.  McCarthy helps us see that a major portion of the automobile’s environmental footprint came from its raw material extraction and refining.  That relative environmental impact remains true today whether the car burns gasoline or uses electricity to power its engine. Consider the amount of strip mining that will be necessary to provide lithium ion batteries for literally hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of electric vehicles and the toxic legacy of their inevitable disposal.  McCarthy’s historical analysis provides an opportunity for us to see why it simply may not be possible to manufacture cars on the massive scale necessary for even a fraction of the world’s population to drive and not cause serious damage to the earth and its climate, even if they don’t burn gasoline (and this doesn’t take into account the carbon footprint of sprawl attendant to the automobile lifestyle).  McCarthy traces the efforts over the decades after World War II to reduce the industrial pollutants flowing from smokestacks, but large quantities of pollutants and tremendous energy consumption (often fossil-fuel derived) will continue to be an inevitable by-product of large scale automobile manufacturing.  Viewed as an entire system of resource extraction, energy intensive mass production, distribution, use, and disposal, we might reasonably conclude that there is no such thing as a “green” car.

McCarthy helps us see the larger environmental impact of the car beyond tailpipe emissions, helps us understand that we shouldn’t expect these environmental consequences to be addressed by consumer choice alone, and suggests that our society may need to rethink its “auto mania.”  If there is a blind spot in McCarthy’s analysis, it is that by placing so much emphasis on consumer choice as a driving force for automobility, he leaves little room for analyzing the way in which the radical redesign of the built environment around the automobile in the 20th century provided the context for those consumer decisions and eventually precluded virtually any “choice” not to drive.

It is to that aspect we shall turn in my next review.

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