Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “community”

New Bike Co-Op in El Monte

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

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

Wrenching at the new BEC

Wrenching at the new BEC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

One More Reason to Ride

There are lots of reasons I ride a bike and take transit whenever I can instead of driving.  Riding a bike for transportation is fun, it relaxes me, it’s great exercise, and it connects me to my neighborhood and my surroundings in a way that driving can’t.  I actually look forward to my commute when I’m riding my bike.  There is no question that these reasons are all important and, as I’ve experienced my world on a bike and transit I have a new appreciation for the pervasive ways we’ve prioritized the private automobile in our design of our cities and our roads.  But there’s another reason riding a bike is important:  the urgent need to address climate change.

Ok, I’m aware the bicycle alone won’t solve the world’s carbon energy and greenhouse gas problems, so I’m not saying it’s the only answer or that it alone is sufficient.  I do think, however, that bicycles and transit must be a major part of the reconstruction of society to shrink our carbon footprint.  As I’ve discussed before, EVs and hybrids—while better than gas guzzlers—aren’t the answer.  If you wanted to design a more wasteful transportation system, you couldn’t have thought of a better way than the automobile.  The idea that every adult must possess a 2,000 – 3,000 lb metal box that sucks up (mostly fossil fuel) energy makes a mockery of sustainability.  By changing the propulsion system from internal combustion to the electricity grid, you might reduce the rate at which those metal boxes consume fuel and spew pollutants, but the overall global scale of energy consumption will continue to rise, especially as that mode of transportation expands to other parts of the world.  The automobile is the nexus of a vicious circle of congestion and sprawl, which is wasteful of space and energy and and creates a feedback loop of more cars-more sprawl-more cars, ad infinitum (well, at least until the carrying capacity of our planet is reached).

I am increasingly convinced that most Americans—even most liberals who agree that something must be done to address the problem—have only dimly grasped the scope and seriousness of the climate change crisis.  Reading the peer-reviewed science on the subject leads to the sobering realization that humanity faces an existential crisis by the end of the 21st century if we don’t fundamentally change our habits of energy consumption.  While the end of the century seems a long way off (I most certainly won’t be around to see it), it is within the life span of a child born today.  In the scope of human history, it is but the blink of an eye.  Yet, most people continue to live—and drive—as if there’s literally no tomorrow.

A recent article by Rebecca Solnit highlights an essential cognitive problem confronting climate change activists who challenge the  status quo.  Many of those in positions of power, even those well-meaning people who recognize the reality of climate change in the abstract, seem not to recognize the scale or seriousness of the problem.  She uses the idea of the burning house as a metaphor for the nature of the emergency we face.  Our house is burning, Solnit tells us, and we’re debating whether to use a bucket or a hose to put out the spreading flames (not to mention those who claim not to “believe” there’s a fire at all).  Here’s the problem: if we wait until the house is entirely engulfed in flames, it will be too late to save it.

She relates the story of how Bay Area climate activists called on the San Francisco Retirement Board to divest from fossil fuel stocks recently, and the board balked at what it considered a “radical” request:

Climate activists speak the language of people who know that we’re in an emergency. The retirement board is speaking the language of people who don’t. The board members don’t deny the science of climate change, but as far as I can tell, they don’t realize what that means for everyone’s future, including that of members of their pension fund and their children and grandchildren.

 Indeed, she highlights a central problem: some of us recognize we’re living on the cusp of an emergency that will affect every human being in one way or another, and some of us don’t.  I’m not talking about the deniers, who live in their own world of wishful thinking.  I mean people who don’t deny climate change, but seem to think some techno-solution will save us and allow us to continue to live as we’ve always done.  Plug-in hybrids!  Electric cars! Hydrogen-powered cars!  Some people are more concerned with what kind of car they’re going to buy in ten years than the fate of the planet.  They can’t imagine not driving all the time, despite the fact that the cumulative effects may destroy the climate by the time today’s children become adults.  Now, that’s radical.

I see this same lack of awareness in some local officials who’ll dither and debate whether to replace a traffic lane with a bike lane, or whether to remove some on-street parking for cars for a bike corral or bike lane.  The world house is on fire and they’re worried about how many extra seconds a bike lane might cost people in cars.  The age of the automobile and cheap oil is coming to an end.  Get used to it.  EVs will not save you.  The massive amount of energy they’ll suck up will have to be supplied to no small degree by fossil fuels, as most energy analysts recognize.  

Change can be overwhelming, but it starts small.  Resolving to replace one car trip a week with your bike or transit is a good place to start.  Advocating for better transit and bike infrastructure in your community is another.  Recognizing that the answer to our transportation issues is not more parking lots, more sprawl, and more freeways, but less.  Supporting the creation of car-free streets and spaces in our cities, de-privileging the automobile in our transportation funding priorities, charging drivers the full cost of their bad habit, and using the revenue to fund transit and infrastructure improvements for biking and walking.

The good news about this is that these alternatives can make our cities more livable, healthy, and as Charles Montgomery argues, happier places.  These small changes add up and make a big difference.  Using UC Berkeley’s carbon calculator, I discovered that by using my bike and transit for many of my commuting trips and local errands instead of my car last year, I reduced my household’s overall carbon emissions by 42%.  While my commute is less convenient than it was when I drove my Corrolla all the time, I’m less stressed and healthier now that I’m taking the bus and my bike and I save money.  It makes me realize how much the car-dependent lifestyle negatively impacts our quality of life.

Our house is on fire and some of us are sounding the alarm bells.  The reconstruction of society along sustainable lines must begin sooner rather than later.  This is not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is about life, period.

Pardon the Interruption

Much has been happening lately, which is one reason I haven’t been posting as regularly as I’d like.  For one, the resumption of the academic year has filled my plate to overflowing with things-to-do.  Second, I’ve been tweeting many of my bike-related thoughts lately, which does not substitute for the longer prose enabled by blogging, but does sometimes allow me to vent, which I have noticed sometimes leaves me less-compelled to vent on my blog.  For example, a recent anti-bike op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that might have sent me a-blogging in frustration, sent me instead to the twitter-verse, where I commiserated with other like-minded tweeters and shared my thoughts there.  The ability to quickly share my thoughts in a time-stressed day and engage in a conversation with others about such issues has its advantages too.  Moreover, the ability of twitter to direct my comments toward a party (in this case to the newspaper) has an advantage over the blog, which, I fear, sometimes goes out into the ether where no one hears it.

All of which is my elaborate way of apologizing for having been absent from the blog for the last few weeks.  It probably won’t be the last time.

As I said, much has been happening lately.  I’m continuing to get to work daily by a multimodal bike-and-bus commute, 22 miles from my home.  As a result, it’s now been almost 5 1/2 months since I filled my car’s gas tank, and I still have about a quarter tank left.  Compared to how much I used to drive, that’s easily 2 tons of GHGs I haven’t pumped into the atmosphere, hundreds of dollars saved, and countless calories not added to my waistline.  I’ve adjusted my schedule to take the bus, and recently purchased a tablet so I can work online while I’m on the bus, making my longer commute time more productive and, since I have many of my books and most of my paperwork on it, lightening the load for the bike portion of my commute considerably.  I’ve become more convinced than ever that we need to promote transit as well as bicycling if we’re going to have a chance of reclaiming our cities and our lives from the tyranny of the automobile, and while these are both daunting challenges, they are definitely doable if we summon the political will.

I’ve been continuing to work in my community to make the streets more bike-friendly.  I recently received a generous mini-grant from my local Rotary club to host a bike safety event for kids with “Walk n’ Rollers” in my hometown next spring, and we’ll be promoting our second annual bike-to-school day as well.  I’ve been working with the PTA and other parents at my daughter’s middle school to purchase some quality new bike racks to make it easier for more kids who bike to school to lock up their bikes safely.  The Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition is up-and-running, and PasCSC is set to have a meeting in a couple of weeks to discuss strategies for getting the city’s DOT to put in more bike lanes, cycletracks and other bike-friendly street treatments.  The university where I teach is also making strides, announcing recently that at least one new bike path is under consideration after last year’s tragic death of a bicycling student on a campus roadway, and a new student bike advocacy group is under formation on the campus that shows lots of positive energy and promise.  Finally, some local advocates in the neighboring city of Monrovia are organizing with Bike SGV to advise the city to install some bike lanes around town as the city prepares to get its very own light rail transit line in 2015.  I’ve been heartened by this energy and enthusiasm to make our streets safer for bicyclists and it makes me hopeful for the future.  As these advocacy efforts begin to bear fruit, I’ll be blogging (and tweeting) about them, so stay tuned.

A Hidden Cost of Car Dependence

What happens to the “freedom” offered by the automobile when a person can no longer drive?  Cars are often marketed as a means of “freedom” in our society, but car dependence has real human costs that are rarely factored into discussions of our transportation infrastructure.  When an older person loses the ability to drive (and, to be clear, many people are perfectly capable of driving well into their senior years) it is seen as a loss of independence and self sufficiency, and such loss can be a serious blow to a person’s sense of self, affecting emotional and physical well-being.

Case in point: a relative of mine is reaching the point in her life when she can no longer drive herself.  She’s in her 80s, widowed, and has no children.  She’s mentally sharp, but a recent fall and a series of physical limitations have restricted her ability to drive, perhaps permanently.  She lives alone in a modest suburban house in a quiet neighborhood with nice neighbors.  However, like most suburban developments, spatial segregation and lack of alternative transportation make car ownership virtually mandatory.  The nearest grocery store and pharmacy is 1.5 miles away—not terribly far by suburban standards, but too far to walk.  The nearest public library and senior center, a little more than 2.5 miles away.  Doctors and family members are even farther away.

In other words, suburban design has separated housing from the most basic human physical and social needs based on the assumption that these needs would be perpetually accessible by automobile.  But what happens when the elderly are cut off from automobile use because of physical or cognitive limitations?  The car-centered suburb basically consigns them to social isolation and loneliness unless they have access to someone with a car (who also has the time to drive them around).  I’ve seen the result firsthand: depression and despair.

Of course, I do what I can for my relative, and it’s not as if we can’t get things delivered to her house, and there are dial-a-ride services, but all of these options require the carless person to be dependent on someone else.  Unfortunately, it is too far for her to walk to the nearest bus stop (an atrocious corner that lacks shelter or a place to sit while waiting) and the buses run too infrequently in the suburbs to make them convenient or practical (the nearest line runs once an hour in the afternoons).  What’s also missing from the car-centered suburb is the social interaction that comes from being able to walk a few doors down to a corner grocery store, butcher shop, or other neighborhood merchant.  The carless person can’t chat with neighbors while out running errands in the neighborhood, and feel part of the social fabric.  The circles of friends one has in the suburbs are accessed by car.  The loss of the ability to drive removes people from all that.  That’s what we’ve lost when we design suburbs around the “freedom” of the car.  If she lived in a denser, mixed-use neighborhood, there would be more services and people nearby, and she probably wouldn’t feel so lonely, dependent, and trapped.  Having lived in her house for the past 35-odd years and developed relationships with her current neighbors, my relative doesn’t want to move to a new place, and she shouldn’t have to.  My point is that when we start shifting away from a culture of sprawl, there will be a host of additional social benefits for those who live in denser neighborhoods designed around walking and transit.

Catherine Lutz, in Carjacked, her excellent book on the myriad costs of the car culture, discusses the way losing the ability to drive robs older people of their independence and makes them feel, as one senior put it, like “a prisoner in your own house.”

The bottom line is this: a car-dependent society ages our old people more rapidly, and infantilizes them more, than a society in which mobility doesn’t require that the traveler have the substantial and specialized range of cognitive and physical skills that are needed to drive. [pp. 111-12]

We need to have a conversation not only about making our streets more bikeable and walkable, but about subsidizing and expanding local transit and changing our zoning laws to allow for more mixed-use development in the suburbs, so that smaller, neighborhood communities can once again become part of our social fabric.  In order to do so, however, we’ll have to rethink 80 years of car-centered sprawl and the logic that gave rise to it.

Something Happening Here

Pasadena Complete Streets Forum discusses Pasadena's Bike Plan.  Photo courtesy DPNA

Pasadena Complete Streets Forum discusses Pasadena’s Bike Plan. Photo courtesy DPNA

When Phillip O’Neill was struck by a motorist and killed while riding his bicycle on Del Mar two weeks ago, a cry of grief went up from Pasadena’s cycling community.  But unlike last year when two cyclists were killed by automobiles in Pasadena, there is a chance that this tragedy has galvanized the community in a way that may bring about change.  In response to the tragedy, a “Complete Streets Forum” attended by upwards of 50 people was held last night at Pasadena Presbyterian Church on Colorado Blvd, and that meeting may be the genesis of a new organization that will push Pasadena officials to move faster to create safe streets for all road users (I say may be, for reasons I’ll explain below).  Participants included many from the DPNA, as well as Caltech and PCC students, quite a few bicycle commuters and recreational riders from the area.

The Forum emerged from an email conversation initiated by Margaret Ho of the Caltech Bike Lab and Wes Reutimann of the Pasadena Downtown Neighborhood Association.  Margaret was the first to call for a meeting to discuss the need for more bike-friendly streets, and Wes worked with the DPNA to host the event at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.  The DPNA, active in livability issues in Downtown Pasadena, brought Rich Dilluvio, chief administrator for the Pasadena DOT, to give an overview of Pasadena’s proposed Bike Plan, which will be voted on by the City Council on July 15.

I have my own critiques of Pasadena’s bike plan, which I’ve written about here, here and here, so I won’t rehash them on this post, but it was clear from the questions to the DOT plan that many in the audience were unsatisfied with the slow pace and unambitious scope of the city’s plan and want improvement to the city’s bike infrastructure beyond the current proposal.  After the Q and A, Dr. Mark Smutny, pastor of PPC and a board member of DPNA, facilitated a strategy session in which attendees broke into small groups and shared ideas.  There were three “rounds” of small group discussion, followed by a sharing of ideas as a whole group.  The small groups allowed everyone a chance to share their views and the whole group discussion distilled the major themes that emerged, providing the group with a vision for where we go from here.

As each group shared its findings, several larger themes became apparent.  First, people are afraid to ride on many of Pasadena’s streets.  They want to ride to school, work, socialize, exercise or run errands, but they’re afraid because of a lack of separated bicycle infrastructure on city streets.  While the city’s proposal relies heavily on “bike routes” and “sharrows,” most people in the group said they wanted cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, or at the very least clearly marked bike lanes, not class III bike routes.  Second, they are frustrated that the city currently has no dedicated funding for bike infrastructure.  Related to this is the fact that the city currently has no implementation goals aside from a vague goal in the current plan of 10 years or longer if funding is not available.  So the group consensus was that the city has to put its money where its mouth is and fund infrastructure change sooner rather than later, with shorter-term goals and timetables that can be measured.

Finally, there was a consensus that the group needs to organize to make its voice heard by those in power.  Several suggested the formation of a bike/pedestrian safety task force to work with the city’s Police Department on enforcement of traffic safety.  But it is clear to many in the room there is a desperate need to push the city to improve its infrastructure, and that change will not come by itself.  There seemed to be a feeling (that I strongly share)  that we need to organize some sort of group to this end.  It was suggested that the group call itself the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, but one participant thought that sounded “too political,” so it was decided that the name of the group would be decided later.

Nevertheless, the tide seems to have turned in Pasadena.  With or without an official title, there is a new organization in Pasadena with energy and with a sense of purpose advocating complete streets as part of a livable, sustainable city.  The group’s next mission is to develop a series of talking points and make our voices heard at the July 15 City Council meeting.  But if real change is going to happen, the group will need to mobilize a wide range of grass roots constituencies in and around the city, develop an effective communication strategy, and organize to put sustained pressure on elected officials.  If the group does these things, Pasadena could be poised to be the next great walkable, bikeable city in Southern California.

To put your name on the email list for the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, please go to the DPNA website here.

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?

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