Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “bicycle advocacy”

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.

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New Year’s Resolutions

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions.  I mean, I’ve always figured if you’re going to do something, why wait for the new year to do it?  That said, the new year does enable us to look back on the previous year and set some goals for the coming year.  Here are some thoughts as 2013 turns into 2014.

2013 was a year full of hope and frustration.  Nationwide, bicycling for transportation has continued its upward trend.  Just to name a few examples, San Francisco saw a 96% increase in bicycling mode share between 2006 and 2013, Chicago installed the first miles of protected bike lanes, and New York City launched its tremendously successful bike share program.  In California, Gov. Jerry Brown finally signed a law mandating a 3-foot buffer when motorists pass bicyclists on the street, which is a good start.  In Los Angeles, progress has been much slower, though new bike lanes have been installed from San Pedro to Eagle Rock and just last month LA installed its first protected bike lane in the 2nd Street tunnel.   LA County, in consultation with Bike SGV (one of the area’s growing bike advocacy organizations), is drafting an ambitious new regional bike plan for the San Gabriel Valley that focuses on connecting bike access to transit hubs.

Unfortunately, the news was not all good in 2013.  Motorists continued to kill pedestrians and cyclists at an alarming rate, and two of those deaths hit especially close to home for me.  Last February, Cal Poly Pomona student Ivan Aguilar was struck and killed by an allegedly distracted driver while cycling on a campus road.  Last summer 25-year-old Philip O’Neill was struck and killed on Del Mar Blvd. in Pasadena while riding together with a friend on what turned out to have been their first date.  However both of these tragic, unnecessary deaths may yet spur positive change at Cal Poly and in Pasadena.  Cal Poly has now installed its first bike path on campus, and a new student organization, the University Cycling Coalition, has been formed, for which I serve as a faculty advisor along with my colleague Dr. Gwen Urey.  This new student group has lots of youthful, positive energy among its student members and I see good things happening in the future.

There’s also a new advocacy organization in Pasadena, the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, formed in response to the outrage that followed the death of Philip O’Neill, and the group has already worked with the City Council to call for a stronger bike plan in that city.  Another local advocacy group, Move Monrovia, was also formed in 2013 to encourage bicycling, walking, and transit in that city.  Among Move Monrovia’s first priorities is working with city staff and elected officials to improve bike and pedestrian access to the planned Monrovia Gold Line station, set to open in 2015.  Both of these organizations show a lot of potential to reshape how people get around in their cities.

So much remains to be done, and the car-centered mentality of most Americans (especially those over 40) remains unchanged, but there are enough hopeful signs, especially among young people, to prevent the paralysis of despair.  When all else fails, I found hope and joy gliding along on my bicycle, alive to the sights and sounds of my world.  I found fellowship with the many others out there who are leaving the automobile behind and enriching their lives as a result.  I find such wonderful people online and in person.  We’re flying under the radar, but we’re out there and we’re growing.

As we round the corner to 2014, here are some of my goals for the new year:

  • Get Organized:  Any positive change comes through organizing.  This means continuing to work with local bicycle advocacy groups and build on our modest successes of 2013.  We need better infrastructure and better laws.  There are more streets that can be made safer for pedestrians and people on bikes.  Three words: protected bike lanes.  We must also redesign our roadways to slow traffic speeds and significantly toughen the penalties on drivers who injure or kill vulnerable road users.  And, while we’re at it, let’s stop calling these preventable collisions “accidents.”  Organizing for effective transit advocacy will also be a major goal.
  • Get Hot:  One of the reasons alternative transportation is so vitally necessary is the looming crisis of climate change and the need to radically change our habits and behaviors to reduce carbon emissions.  This won’t be done by fluorescent lightbulbs and EVs alone.  It’s going to require changes to the way we live and how we get around.  This will require driving less and flying less.  This will also require rethinking the sprawl-and-freeway model of development.  This means rail, transit, bicycling, and walking.  This doesn’t mean cars cease to be used, it means that we need to design our infrastructure around people, not cars.  We don’t have time to wait.  The sooner people get wise to this fact the better.  I vow not to waste my precious time and energy on people who aren’t hip to this.
  • Get Moving:  I’ll continue to ride my bike and take transit where I need to go.  With apologies to friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers, I’ll be a pain in the ass and gently encourage you to do the same whenever possible (and it’s more possible than you think).

Best wishes to all in the new year.  And remember, when the world gets you down, ride your bike.

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