Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “Charles Montgomery”

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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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.

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