Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “transportation”

Remembering Jane Holtz Kay


I first read Jane Holtz Kay’s wonderful book Asphalt Nation in the late 1990s, and it was one of the first books I’d read that systematically dissected the problems of the car-dependent culture.

Oh sure, growing up in Southern California, I knew firsthand about smog alerts, sig alerts, and oil spills, but, like so many American adolescents, I couldn’t wait for my 16th birthday and the California Driver’s License that signified freedom and the state’s semi official recognition of my nascent adulthood.

By the late 1990s, my growing concern over climate change and resource depletion got me thinking more critically about the automobile in our society (though I still drove a car pretty much everywhere), and prompted me to pick up her book and read it.  It got me thinking for the first time about the centrality of the automobile to a wide range of issues, not just air pollution, but sprawl and the sacrifice of public transit and people-centered urban space to the car.  It began an altering of my consciousness about the automobile that continues to this day.

Last week I was saddened to read of the passing of Jane Holtz Kay at the age of 74.  Her New York Times obituary noted that she “felt like a voice crying in the wilderness,” and that people’s response to her book was either “so what?” or a belief that they were powerless to change things.  As an advocate for alternative transportation, I certainly understand those frustrations, yet there was something else in the obituary that made me feel a sense that she was a kindred spirit, her own decision to give up her car and move to an apartment in Boston, within walking distance of public transit.  “She was a big believer in doing things,” her sister told the New York Times.  She lived her ideals, and she never quit trying to open people’s eyes to the necessity of shifting away from the car-centered culture if we are to live sustainably.

The notice of her passing prompted me to reread Asphalt Nation, and what is striking is how relevant it remains and how much it is not so much a voice in the wilderness as a voice ahead of its time.  The book is well worth reading today, and I’d urge anyone who is interested in “taking back” America from the automobile juggernaut—or even creating pockets of walkability and bikeability—to read it.

Her book helps us to see that the problems associated with the automobile do not just revolve around tailpipe emissions (though those emissions are themselves a huge problem), but also have to do with other quality of life issues.  Consider the freeway, the big box, the parking garage: all car-friendly/people-unfriendly places that will continue to dominate our landscape when everyone’s driving a hybrid.  Consider the alienation and monotony of suburban sprawl, the sedentary life behind the wheel, the fast food “drive-thru” meal, and the obesity epidemic it engenders.  Consider, too, the huge drain of car payments, insurance, and auto maintenance on the average family budget.  None of these problems will be ameliorated by buying a Prius.

She saw the end of the age of the automobile as historian Frederick Jackson Turner had seen the end of the frontier in American History, the end of en era that had defined the nation, and the beginning of an era, she hoped, marked not by the desire for “escape,” but by “the cultivation of a landscape that values place more than passage, that restrains auto mobility in the name of human mobility, that re-thinks the way we live.”  She hoped to create a “human and humane frontier” in the 21st century.  (9)

She drew the veil away from many of the myths of automobility:  that cars made us “free,” (they left us dependent on them and cost us extravagant amounts of money); that cars meant “progress,” (instead of destroying walkable communities and replacing them with “road-wrapped sprawl,” marked by its signature architectural monuments—the freeway and the big-box store in the middle of acres of asphalt parking lot.); and that they were simply a reflection of “free market” forces (instead of the massively subsidized system they are).  But her book was more than just a litany of complaints about the automobile, it was also a window offering a glimpse of a way forward, where we might salvage our landscape and environment by shifting the focus from moving cars to moving people.  This would mean reorienting our streets away from the car toward walking, bicycling and public transit.

She asked us, in short, to re-imagine our lives beyond the automobile:

Suppose we didn’t have pockets emptied by car costs and a world sullied by their toxins.  Suppose we didn’t have traffic jams for the rich and cars on blocks and broken-down buses for the poor.  Suppose we had an easier, fuller way to live.  How better to live on traffic-calmed streets with grassy medians and leafed-over sidewalks, to stroll or bike down greenways, to traverse car-free Main Streets.  It is time to create a living space for humans and a healthy planet habitat.  It is essential to retrieve and absorb the walkable, bustling wonders of city life. (p. 357)

The movement to reclaim our culture from the automobile continues.  Her passing merely reminds us that the task is yet unfinished. Like Jane Holtz Kay, we need to be believers in doing things to shift away from the car- and oil-dominated society.


Pedaling Gas

I’ve been riding my bike and taking transit for almost all my trips this summer, so I hardly ever have to visit a gas station.  In fact, the last time I put gas in my little Corolla was in early June (and I still have about half a tank left).  Nevertheless, when my lawn mower and weed eater ran out of gas yesterday while my son was mowing the lawn, I needed to go to the gas station to fill the 2-gallon gas can.  So naturally, I rode my bike (what else?).

The gas station is less than a mile from my house, so it was an easy ride, but the clerk behind the counter and the woman filling up her minivan did a double take when I pulled up to the pump on my bike.  I paid 7 bucks for 2 gallons of gas, filled my can, and pedaled it home.  That 2 gallons should last me the better part of a year.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep riding.  With any luck at all, I won’t have to visit the gas station again for quite some time.

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!

Bike Paths (part 2)

Eaton Wash, Pasadena. A bike path is under consideration for this location.


An easy bike path addition in the San Gabriel Valley would be this existing pathway along the Eaton Canyon wash in Pasadena, which could made bike-ready with minimal upgrades.  This route runs along the Eaton Canyon wash between Altadena and Pasadena and would provide an excellent recreational bike path as well as a convenient north-south route for bike commuters.  This route is currently listed in the L.A. County Department of Public Works bicycle master plan as a future bike path, but there is no timetable for opening it.  There is no doubt this would be a popular route, the only question is, how long will we have to wait?

Bike Lanes Needed (part 2)

In light of the City of Pasadena’s proposed new bike plan, here is the next in my series of articles on areas of Pasadena that need more protection for bicyclists.

Last month I posted a story calling for bike lanes on the northern approach to the Metro Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station in Pasadena.  The area south of the Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station is, if anything, even more difficult for cyclists to navigate safely, with high speed traffic and very little room on the shoulder of the road.  Transportation planners often refer to the “last-mile” problem, that is, the problem of how to get people from a transit stop to that last mile to work or home.  Integrating bicycles with transit is an ideal solution, but if the routes around transit centers are not bicycle friendly, that integration cannot occur.  If bicycle infrastructure is properly integrated with mass transit, however, it enables many more people who live or work within a 2-mile radius of light rail stations to leave their cars at home.

As currently configured, the southern approaches to the Sierra Madre Villa Metro station cannot be considered bike-friendly, limiting its usefulness for bike commuters who live to the south of the station.  Moreover, the lack of bike lanes places many of the businesses and shops on nearby Colorado Blvd in east Pasadena out of reach for all but the most intrepid (or desperate) bicyclists.

Looking north on Sierra Madre Villa at entrance to Pasadena Gold Line station.

In the first photo, we see the Sierra Madre Villa entrance to the Metro station, looking north.  A cyclist approaching the entrance from the south (effectively the only direct approach, since the 210 freeway cuts off all other approaches from the south) must either ride in the street dangerously close to heavy traffic moving at 35-40 mph, or ride on the sidewalk.  A cyclist exiting the Metro station here and heading south on Sierra Madre Villa would also have to ride on the sidewalk to avoid crossing 4 lanes of traffic to get to the southbound side of Sierra Madre Villa.

Riding on the sidewalk is not illegal in Pasadena, but neither is it always safe.  First, drivers pulling in or out of driveways are not looking for cyclists on the sidewalk, creating a danger zone at every driveway.  Second, where the 210 freeway overpass crosses Sierra Madre Villa, there are freeway on- and off-ramps that cyclists must cross and, as with driveways, motorists are not looking for cyclists at these crossing points.  Third, intersections are particularly dangerous for cyclists riding the sidewalk, especially from cars making turns across the cyclist’s path.  In 2011, cyclist Alan Deane, was killed in Pasadena when he was riding in the crosswalk at an intersection on Colorado Blvd.  In such cases, cars making turns often do not look for cyclists riding from the sidewalk into the intersection, even though the cyclist may be riding legally.  Fourth, the sidewalks here are relatively narrow, especially under the freeway, and it forces pedestrians and cyclists to share a narrow strip of concrete, making it more dangerous for pedestrians.  Forcing bicyclists to use sidewalks is a poor substitute for bike-friendly infrastructure.

Bicyclists on Colorado Blvd near Pasadena’s Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line station are forced to ride in the danger zone between parked cars and heavy traffic or “take the lane.” All but the bravest retreat to the sidewalk.

In the second photo, we see the view of Colorado Blvd. looking east towards Sierra Madre Villa.  Here, cyclists who ride on the road, as is their legal right, would be pinched between fast-moving, heavy traffic and parked cars along the curb.  Cyclists who want to bike to work or shop along this stretch of Colorado Blvd. face a decision to brave the white-knuckle ride on the street or ride on the sidewalk.  Needless to say, most choose the sidewalk.

Under the city’s proposed bike plan, neither Sierra Madre Villa nor Colorado Blvd. are slated for any bikeway upgrades, without which bicycle access to the Gold Line station from the south will remain problematic.  As a result, bicycle ridership in that part of Pasadena most likely will not increase from its current anemic levels, and transit ridership will not grow as much as it otherwise could.  Colorado Blvd. is wide enough for bike lanes, but it would probably require the elimination of curbside automobile parking to open up space for bike lanes.  Doing so would be politically difficult, but would improve safety and provide much-needed bike access to a key commercial district and the key Metro station in east Pasadena.  When we decide that the safety of bicycle commuters is at least as important as a curbside spot for parked cars, then we will have made real progress.

Grocery Shopping by Bike (part I)

An inexpensive set of grocery panniers easily allows you to carry two full-size grocery bags on your bike.

How many times do we get in our cars to run the simplest errands?  Most of us live less than 2 miles from the nearest grocery store, yet we think nothing of hopping in our cars to pick up some eggs, milk, bread, and a couple of other items.  According to the National Personal Transportation Survey, 40 percent of all car trips in the U.S. are 2 miles or less.  These short trips by automobile not only add to local traffic, they produce a high proportion of air pollution because a car’s exhaust is dirtiest in the first 10 minutes of driving, before the engine is warmed up.  Reducing the number of short car trips goes a long way towards reducing pollution.  Not to mention these short trips also contribute their fair share of greenhouse gas emissions, require large parking lots at these retail destinations and add to our unhealthy sedentary lifestyle.

For a change, try doing some of these smaller grocery runs on your bicycle.  You don’t need a special cargo bike (though those are becoming increasingly popular), but I recommend a rear rack and grocery panniers, as shown in the picture.  These aren’t very expensive and each one can carry a fully loaded grocery bag.  Most of these panniers come with straps so you can carry them when you’re in the store or farmer’s market.  I keep mine on my bike, and just take my reusable bags into the store with me.

You’ll need to bring a lock to secure your bike while you’re shopping.  Many markets have bike racks near the front of the store, but some don’t (if not, you may want to mention this to the store manager).  If there’s no bike rack, find a secure signpost or rail to lock your bike to.  Make sure the post is tall enough that your bike cannot be easily lifted off the top of the post.  Many stores have corrals for shopping carts that work just fine as a place to lock your bike.  Just be sure you don’t block the entrance or walkway.

Using your bike for small grocery runs is a great way to add some exercise into your routine, do your part for the environment, save money on gas, reduce traffic, and, best of all, it’s fun.

Nothing But Flowers

The 2012 Transportation Bill … more of the same.

In a recent post, I noted that politics matters when it comes to funding for alternative transportation.  Amid the (admittedly important) news about yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, few will notice that the GOP-led House eliminated dedicated funding for bike lanes and pedestrian safety enhancements from the federal transportation bill that passed yesterday.

In describing the elimination of funds for bicycling and pedestrian safety, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Republicans wanted to enact “significant reforms” that would:

“focus our highway dollars on fixing America’s highways, not planting more flowers around the country.”

Reform? Fixing America’s highways?  What a joke.  “Fixing” America’s highways would entail investment in multimodal commuting, Mr. Speaker.  Now that would be real reform.

Let’s review some of the facts.

  • The dedicated funding for “enhancements” like bike lanes, pedestrian safety, and the safe routes to school program not only saves lives, but made up only about 1 percent of highway spending, despite the fact that pedestrians and bicyclists make up 12-14 percent of highway fatalities.
  • There is a high demand for bike/ped safety projects, and they are overwhelmingly popular with communities.
  • The Safe Routes to School program was an especially effective way of promoting safe walking and biking to schools, reducing traffic congestion around schools and promoting exercise and a healthy lifestyle for young people.
  • Infrastructure improvements for safe walking and bicycling are an efficient use of tax dollars.  Not only does a bike lane cost far less than improvements for automobiles (especially if the improvement is done at the same time the road is being resurfaced), but they tend to last longer and need less upkeep, as bicycling and walking cause far less wear and tear on the infrastructure.

The 2012 transportation bill is not all bad news.  It preserves funding for crucial improvements to L.A.’s mass transit system and doesn’t include the poison pill of funding for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  However, it is a sad reflection of the way in which many in Congress still refuse to recognize that road improvements like bike lanes not only save lives, improve public health, and decrease traffic congestion, they are, dollar-for-dollar, a more effective use of tax money than simply throwing more money at the automobile road monopoly.  If we see the transportation system as a means of safe, healthy, and efficient mobility to jobs, school, recreation, and other human activities, rather than just a “highway system” for cars, we can see more clearly that this car-based transportation bill is a major failure of vision and leadership.

It is important for those of us who care about public safety, public health, alternative transportation, and the environment to continue to push for a modicum of dedicated funding for these projects, so we create a transportation system that doesn’t virtually require people to use an automobile for all their transportation needs.  Sadly, for 2012, it appears we’re out of luck.

The Politics of Commuting

The more I use my bike for transportation the more I’ve come to pay close attention to transportation debates in Washington and Sacramento, and the more I’ve come to realize that these debates, mundane as they may seem to most Americans, have a tremendous power to shape our infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

The Gas Tax

Take the federal gasoline tax that every motorist pays at the pump.  The gas tax has stood at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, and there is a high level of political resistance to raising the gas tax.  However, most Americans don’t realize that the gas tax does not come anywhere near paying for the maintenance and improvement of our massive transportation system.  Indeed, the tax pays for 41% less infrastructure today than it did in 1993.  That’s because Americans are driving more fuel efficient cars (a good thing), but they’re also driving more miles per year.  This means drivers buy less gas but generate more wear and tear on the roads.  Meanwhile, the cost of road construction and materials such as asphalt have increased since 1993 while the tax has remained flat.  One 2012 study estimates that the gas tax would need to be raised more than 12 cents per gallon to offset these trends.  In the meantime, transportation funding must be subsidized by general tax revenues, which includes tax money from those of us who bike instead of drive (and who put far less wear and tear on the roadways).  Remember that next time someone says bicyclists don’t pay for the roads we ride on.

Induced Demand

Another fact to consider is that the overwhelming majority of our current transportation money goes to maintaining and expanding the automobile system, road and freeway expansion and maintenance.  Yet transportation engineers and urban planners have known for years that building more capacity for automobile traffic is not only extremely expensive, but it never solves the long term traffic congestion problem, because of a phenomenon known as “induced demand.”  Basically, as this term implies, the building of additional traffic lanes usually does not result in less congested conditions, at least in the long term.  This is a major reason why traffic delays in the U.S. are as bad as ever, despite the extraordinary growth of highway lane-miles over the past quarter century.  As Tom Vanderbilt explains in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (2010):

When more lane-miles of roads are built, more miles are driven, even more so than might be expected by ‘natural’ increases in demand, like population growth.  In other words, the new lanes may immediately bring relief to those who wanted to use the highway before, but they will also encourage those same people to use the highway more . . . and they will bring new drivers on to the highway, because they suddenly find it a better deal.”  (p. 155)

Put another way, if you build it, they will come.

The logic of induced demand also applies to bike lanes and bike paths, especially when those facilities go to places people want to go, such as schools, transit centers, and shopping districts.  Thus, it is essential that we invest in bicycle-friendly infrastructure if we are to increase the number of bicycle miles traveled and enable people to make the rational choice to travel safely by bike.

All Politics is Local

Finally, as blogger BikinginLA reminds us, the local political climate makes a huge difference when it comes to making our roads more bike-friendly.  The increasing number of Americans who want to be able to bike and walk safely in their communities need to pay attention to national and local transportation debates if we are to make our communities safer and more convenient for all road users.

Our transportation debates, meanwhile, must recognize the fact that providing resources for multiple modes of commuting makes far more sense than continuing to throw money at the expansion of automobile capacity on the roadways.

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