Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “bicycling”

Homage to JHK

tol-life

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.

City Cycling

City Cycling

City Cycling (MIT Press, 2012), edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, is a new collection of essays by a variety of transportation and urban planning experts that promotes cycling  as a sustainable means of getting to work, school, and shopping.  The central thrust of these authors is that cycling can be a viable transportation alternative if we pursue public policies that provide safe space for people of all ages and abilities to get around on bicycles.

The book is divided into 15 chapters that cover issues ranging from statistical analyses of urban cycling, documented health benefits of cycling, the role of bicycling infrastructure, integration of bicycling and public transportation, bikesharing programs, and so on.  There are several general ideas that stand out from the wealth of empirical data provided.  First, study after study confirms that the aversion to cycling in automobile traffic is one of the major factors preventing more widespread use of bicycles for sustainable transportation, especially by more “traffic averse” groups in society (a large proportion of which are women, children, and older adults).

Second, better cycling infrastructure, especially protected bike lanes and cycle tracks, as well as laws designed to protect vulnerable road users (i.e., cyclists and pedestrians) have resulted in the growth of bicycling as a mode share of transportation (especially among risk-averse groups) and, at the same time, lower injury and fatality rates.  The idea that protected space for bicyclists results in more people using bikes for transportation may not seem controversial, and in most countries with large bicycling populations (the Netherlands or Denmark, for example), it is not.

Particularly interesting, in my view, is Peter Furth’s chapter comparing the effectiveness of bicycle infrastructure in Europe and North America in encouraging mass cycling.  Furth, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University, demonstrates how European and American policies providing bicycle-friendly infrastructure and laws “strongly diverged” after the 1970s, and how these divergent approaches have affected the level of transportational bicycling.  Simply put, European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden instituted “traffic calming” measures and recognized cyclists’ need for separation from heavy traffic as a fundamental principle of road safety.  The result is a the provision of “a vast network of ‘cycle tracks,'” essentially separated bike paths along roadways, that keep bicyclists safe and encourage “traffic averse” segments of the population to use bicycles for transportation.  Furth documents the much higher percentage of trips taken by bicycle in Europe versus the United States, as well as the much lower bicycling fatality rates.

In the early 1970s, the United States missed an opportunity to follow the European example.  Furth shows how the US DOT was preparing to accept a guideline (designed by UCLA transportation planners) for separated bikeways in 1972 that would have moved the US toward the European model of bike facilities on roadways, “recommending sidewalk-level bikeways, separated bike lanes, and regular bike lanes.” (116)  That effort was significantly sidetracked by the ideology of “Vehicular Cycling” (VC), promoted primarily by John Forester, a cyclist who saw the establishment of separated cycle space as a threat to the principle that bicycles were vehicles that had a right to share road space with automobiles.

In response to the efforts to build European-style bicycling infrastructure, Forester played a major role in developing the VC philosophy that encouraged cyclists to use the roadways like any other vehicle.  “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as vehicles,” is the central tenet of the VC philosophy, and the greatest danger to bicyclists is said to be the “lack of skill” of the cyclist (for a fuller discussion of Vehicular Cycling, see Forester’s own website).  Forester and other VC-only adherents have long argued that bike lanes and bike paths are actually more dangerous to cyclists than riding as a vehicle in the middle of traffic, and have accused bike lane advocates of being “anti-cycling.”  In his role as president of the League of American Wheelmen (now League of American Bicyclists), Forester and other VC-only advocates steered US policy away from separated bike facilities on American roadways.  It is worth noting that, for his part, Forester belittles those who see the bicycle as a viable form of urban transportation and part of a comprehensive alternative to the auto-centric transportation system we now have.  As a result of the work of the VC-only lobby, the US now finds itself 40 years behind the curve on bike infrastructure design, with lower rates of bicycle usage for transportation and higher fatality rates than European countries with excellent networks of bike-specific infrastructure.

I do not see bike paths, cycle-tracks, bike lanes, and VC as mutually exclusive.  I strongly support bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other bike-specific infrastructure, but I recognize that there currently exists no adequate network of transportational infrastructure for bicycling in the United States, and agree with some key elements of the VC philosophy, namely that bicycles have a right to the roadways and that a knowledge of how to ride safely in traffic is an essential skill bicyclists should learn.  There will always be roads that don’t have bikeways on them, and for those roads, VC is the appropriate and safe approach to cycling (if not the most stress-free).  But emphasizing only VC and opposing bike-specific infrastructure improvements, as Forester and some VC-oriented organizations have done in the past, has resulted in very low rates of cycling for transportation among all but the most fearless, assertive, and experienced cyclists.

It is especially frustrating to think that we could have been building cycle-tracks and bike-specific infrastructure for the last 40 years, could have provided people with an alternative to the automobile, could have made cycling safer for the average, traffic-averse bicyclist, and could have improved the health of millions of sedentary Americans.  Instead, as Furth writes, “the antiseparation vehicular cycling ideology has stymied America’s development of bicycling infrastructure,” and made us more dependent on the automobile. (135)

Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning.  As the studies in this book show, American cities like Portland, Minneapolis, New York, and many others have seen the proportion of people cycling for transportation boom as they’ve built separated bicycle space on their roadways, and the studies in this book prove empirically that bikeways do not in themselves make cycling more dangerous, as some VC proponents claim.

My take on bike lanes and cycle tracks fundamentally stems from my personal experience as well as my desire to see public policy for cycling to be made safe for everyone—mothers, schoolchildren, shoppers, older Americans, and working people of all ages and economic strata—who wants to get from point A to point B on a bicycle.  If you want to limit the appeal of cycling to those who are physically fit and, most importantly, not averse to riding in automobile traffic, a primary emphasis on VC is the way to go.  If you want to broaden the appeal of cycling for transportation to everyone—young, old, rich, poor, male, female, and all levels of fitness—you need to build buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other bike-specific infrastructure.  Of course, bicyclists and motorists must be educated to share the road properly, especially in those instances where the two modes must share road space, so elements of the VC philosophy will always be useful, but it just shouldn’t be the primary or sole basis for bicycle transportation planning.  It is not unreasonable for people to feel uncomfortable riding a bicycle in fast-moving traffic, with 2,000-lb cars whizzing by, and simply exhorting people to assert their rights and “take the lane” will not get more Americans out of their cars.

This welcome volume should be read by bicyclists, alternative transportation advocates, and officials at all levels of government related to transportation planning.  The empirical data reinforce Peter Furth’s conclusion about the need for cycling-specific infrastructure in American cities.

For bicycling to contribute meaningfully to societal goals in the areas of public health, livability, traffic congestion, and energy use, it has to appeal to the mainstream, traffic-intolerant population.  Bicycling infrastructure in many parts of Europe has been successful in achieving mass cycling because it respects the fundamental human need to be separated from traffic stress. (135)

Scenes from Autopia

Last week I was riding my bike home from the market with some groceries, when I saw a friend leaving her workplace, which is about a quarter of a mile from her house just up the same street.  She walked to the street, got into her SUV, made a U-turn, and drove home a distance of roughly 1,500 feet.  The street is not terribly busy, not too steep, and has a sidewalk.  Yet, instead of walking or riding a bike, the default mode of transportation for my friend, and for most Americans, is a car.  That used to be me, until I discovered how easy, healthy, and fun it could be to get around on my bike.

This begs the question of whether it is really necessary for an able-bodied adult to drive a 3,000-lb SUV to a destination 1,500 feet away.  There may be times when it would be necessary to drive that short a distance, perhaps if one had an oversized load, a broken leg, or if weather was really bad and you had small children with you (though some people with small children have gone car-free and loved it, like this family in Portland).  But surely we can drive less and be healthier (and happier) for it.  Would it really be so hard to substitute one short car trip per week for walking or bicycling?  Just one?  The sad part is, my friend, like most Americans, probably never thought twice about firing up the SUV for a 1,500-foot trip down the street on a pleasant, sunny morning.  It just becomes habit.

In this case, it is not primarily the lack of bike or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that is the problem, or time (on my bike, I passed her house roughly 15 seconds after she got there in her car).  I hate to say this, but a big part of the problem is laziness, mental and physical laziness that our car-culture encourages.  Why exert your own energy, when there is plenty of gas to burn and it will do the work for you?  And, there’s the wrongheaded assumption that riding a bike or walking is for losers (remember the Missing Persons song “Walking in L.A.”?  . . . only a nobody walks in L.A. . . .).  But, really, have we become so dependent on cars that we don’t even think twice about driving 1,500-feet rather than walking or bicycling?

And, of course, there’s the traffic and pollution such short trips produce.  Our cars spew more pollution and greenhouse gasses in the first three miles when their engines are not warmed up, than they do after.  And there’s the lack of exercise we Americans get.  Perhaps, like many Americans, my friend pays to go to a gym (doubtless she’ll drive there) and walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike.  Paying money and burning gas to go nowhere and get the exercise our driving deprives us of.

Now, I’m not advocating that everyone give up cars completely (I haven’t).  There are times they may be necessary, especially in many suburban neighborhoods where distances are great, but it is time to recognize the physical, economic, and environmental costs of our driving habit, and rediscover the healthy, economical alternatives of walking and bicycling for some of our short trips.

Take the step.  Leave your car at home for one short trip per week–just one.  It makes a world of difference.

Bikes and Health

Driving to Obesity

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

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

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

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

Bicycling to Health

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Started

Let’s say you want to incorporate your bicycle into your life, or drive less and be healthier.  How do you get started?

First, of course, you need a bike.  If your bike has been sitting in the garage gathering dust, check it and make sure the tires are properly inflated and the brakes work.  If you’re looking to buy a bike, I suggest getting a practical, comfortable bike with gears, lights, and a rear rack and/or front basket to carry things.

You certainly don’t need the most expensive full-suspension mountain bike or a lightweight carbon fiber racing bike.  In fact, these bikes are often more appropriate for super-specialized riding (i.e., racing), not all-around practicality.  Beach cruisers, while popular, tend to be limited in terms of gearing, so if you live in a hilly area (as I do) they’re not very useful.  Get a bike with regular “platform” pedals, so you don’t need special shoes to ride (“clipless” pedals are great for racing, but they require special shoes).

Second, set a goal for yourself.  A good goal to get you started is to substitute your bike for one short car trip per week.

Third, find your address on a map, and draw a one-mile radius around it.  Find all the places you go within that one-mile radius (school, library, bank, post office, grocery store, friend’s house, park, etc.).  Then scout less traveled side streets, if possible, to make your cycling more comfortable.  If you’ve got bike lanes or bike paths around you, use them.

Now, a word about bicycling in traffic.  Some parts of your short trip will involve bicycling in traffic.  It’s actually safer than most people assume, but you should ride defensively, be aware of your surroundings, and know the rules of the road (the LA County Bicycle Coalition website has an excellent overview).  In California, bicyclists have all the rights and responsibilities of any other vehicle on the road.  That means by law you have every bit as much right to the road as cars do and you have to obey the traffic laws, just like cars do.

There’s a huge debate among bicyclists about helmets that I think is ultimately time-consuming and fruitless.  In California, all bicyclists under the age of 18 have to wear them.  I usually wear one, especially if I’m going someplace where traffic is heavy.  I think being visible, paying attention, and following the rules of the road are much more important for safety than helmets, but when I wear one it’s nice to know I’ve got the protection it affords.

Once you start substituting your bike for some of your short car trips, you’ll enjoy the exercise it provides, appreciate the little things in your community that you miss in a car, and know that you’re doing your part to reduce carbon emissions and pollution.  Oh, and you’ll be saving money on gas, too.

Best of all, you’ll be having fun.  So, get out there and ride!

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