Archive

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Ships in the night

I don’t venture out much at night on my bicycle, not when I can help it. It just seems too dangerous to mix it up with tired or chemically impaired drivers. They have enough problems seeing me in the daytime when they’re alert and sober. At night it seems they’re doubly blind.

But twice this week (so far) I’ve found myself mounting lamps and blinkies on the bike and braving the night. Monday’s adventure was a rather mundane grocery run, and hardly merits mention. Last night’s ride, by contrast, was a revelation, a vision of what Los Angeles could be in the light of what the beach bike paths are now.

As it happened, my uncle invited me to dinner in Hermosa Beach. It’s about a nineteen-mile drive from my apartment to the restaurant. Weeknight traffic makes that drive a bit more than an hour. But this time it occurred to me that I could do a multi-modal trip instead, driving to the beginning of the Marvin Braude bike path in Culver City — thus avoiding riding on the roads at night — and then cycling on the beach bike path to Hermosa.

So, last night, I did. The driving portion took 25 minutes, the cycling about 50 minutes, so overall only about ten minutes longer than driving. That much I expected. What I didn’t expect was how the path was being used. If your general experience (like mine) comes from weekend exercise outings, you’ll likely have missed the many weekday commuters who use it regularly. On the way towards the restaurant, I came across any number of people carrying stuff on their bicycles, obviously not solely engaged in cycling for the exercise (although plenty of others were, too). These were people headed somewhere for utility purposes, on all sorts of bicycles.

After dinner, the ride back brought even more surprises. I left Hermosa Beach around 8:30 PM, when the sun had long passed over the horizon, gone towards Hawaii and parts west. The night was misty, with the remnants of an afternoon breeze flowing off the ocean. The path is not lit overhead, and I had thought I would share it only with a few people out to enjoy the night air or walk their dogs. I did not expect the numbers of cyclists, their presence announced by blinking LED beacons, ships passing in the night, each headed to its own destination. Naturally, the beach cities had more traffic. The path beyond Marina del Rey was lightly trod, but even there a few cyclists took advantage of the thoroughfare. Ultimately, I was struck by the simple fact that the path was used well after dark, a purpose for which it has clearly not been intended, for all sorts of cycling purposes.

It’s useful to keep in mind that the beach paths are out of the way for most people. They only serve the beach cities and Culver City directly, and even so aren’t often the most direct connection between points. But they are still used by Angelenos. We are famous worldwide for loving our cars, but the few bike paths we have are used regularly and usefully. This is way it could be everywhere if we had real paths that went real places.

Advertisements
Categories: Culture, Los Angeles

A lane of one’s own

July 16, 2012 3 comments

When I wheeled the Bullit last Saturday into Charles Picture Framing to pick up some packages, Charles was understandably confused, and maybe a little startled. “Can I help you?” he asked. I was (admittedly) pushing the notion of “rock star parking” to the bleeding edge. You can’t get any closer than in the shop, but it sure made sense to me to get the bike as near as possible to the goods. When I told him I was picking up some frames, Charles recovered quickly, got my packages, and helped me load. He said he couldn’t remember any pick-ups by cyclists his thirty years there. I guess that wouldn’t be too far out of character for our town.

I love running errands by bicycle. It’s great to be out in the sun, hearing the wind whistling in my ears, and seeing the bustle of the city from the unique perspective available only to cyclists. I use the word “unique” advisedly: you won’t find me or any pedestrian standing squarely in the middle of the Sepulveda and Santa Monica intersection, two feet on the ground, waiting to make a left turn, with four lanes of cars whizzing by on either side — but put a bicycle between my legs, and there I am.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that I also find cycling in Los Angeles to be an act of quiet desperation, an activity almost always accompanied by low level terror? When I was headed home with all those picture frames, “driving” north on Overland Avenue and listening keenly for the sound of overtaking cars, I found myself overcome with a sudden rush of jealousy at the sight of a father on the sidewalk, out for a walk with his child, enjoying the afternoon unconcernedly, unhurriedly, with no care for traffic. The contrast made we wonder at my sanity: I must have a screw loose to “enjoy” the death riding on my left. I have a car. I can afford gasoline. Shouldn’t I be driving?

Last May, one of the more astonishing crash statistics came from the League of American Bicyclists. In a funding appeal letter, the LAB mentioned that “more than one in four of crashes we’ve documented involve cyclists getting hit from behind.” I’ve heard almost nothing about this number since, but it might be one of the more compelling data points that cycling has seen in years. If anything, this statistic should jump off the page to any vehicular cyclist who’s used to hearing that fewer than ten percent of crashes involve hits from behind. The ten percent number has been used to justify any amount of “proper” cycling behavior, from avoiding sidewalks, to taking the lane, to advocating against separate bicycle paths – because, the line goes, we’re “safer” in traffic than elsewhere. That such behavior often goes completely against common sense has never counted for much, in part because it’s hard to argue against a statistic without something comparable. But that low-level terror I feel when riding comes in large part because of the many, daily near-misses I face riding exactly where the “vehiculars” say I should be. Now, maybe, finally, we have statistics that correspond to the terror. At the very least, we have cause to reconsider a set of forty-year-old studies that may have no basis in current reality. The broader implications are tremendous: these are numbers that can change policy, that go far to show the need for separate lanes and real infrastructure.

Tom Vanderbilt — he of that famous book on traffic — tweeted this nugget the other day: “My general feeling on painted bike lanes and sharrows is: Would pedestrians feel comfortable on sidewalks that were made of icons & paint?” When I was looking over at that lucky father walking with his child on the sidewalk, I had to ask myself what the hell I was doing in the middle of Overland Avenue, creeping along at ten miles-per-hour, cars rushing and squeezing by me with inches to spare, and trying my best to keep those six picture frames from getting banged up. What the hell indeed? I was jealous because he had a lane of his own, and I did not. I was a supplicant in a land of brazen and selfish giants, the dog begging for scraps at the table; he was the master of his space. I want a lane of my own, a lane of one’s own.

Cycling is for everyone, but are we really that different?

June 2, 2011 6 comments

Yesterday, L.A. StreetsBlog ran a piece by Adrian Leung and Allison Mannos about the “missing story” of immigrant cycling in Los Angeles. If I understand the article accurately, it leveled three major criticisms at current cycling advocacy efforts:

► They have ignored the influence of recent “immigrants of color,” for whom riding is a “cultural norm of inexpensive transportation that provides means for survival.”

► They have discounted the “numerous lessons” found in South American and Asian regions, particularly with respect to infrastructure standards and best practices, for which they instead largely look to northern European countries.

► They have failed to focus on poor, non-white communities — who cycle in larger numbers — and instead made “misplaced” efforts to encourage “affluent” drivers “to commute by bicycle.”

Cycling among all income levels and skin colors is desirable, and input from the constituents of all cycling communities is valuable. However, it’s not clear to me that any of these criticisms make sense overall, either absolutely or as guidance to shaping future advocacy. (Actually, I couldn’t locate anything in the article that would show up a specific difference in the concerns between poor and rich cyclists. I’m hoping someone could point a few out.) As I see it now, poor and rich, immigrants and natives, and persons of all hues ride the streets arm-in-arm, and their viewpoints are all shaped by the same external factors — cars, street conditions, and laws.

For that matter, cycling has long been a great leveler. H.G. Wells said cycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world” in the nineteenth century. Its relatively low entry cost also helped break down class barriers, and gave access to first rate transportation options to people who couldn’t otherwise afford a horse. Similar undercurrents continue into modern times, with the poor and rich alike participating on equal terms. I’ve ridden in many weekend outings of local bicycle clubs in which the only distinction that mattered was performance.

In particular, I would make these observations:

■ Cycling may help the poor, but consciously associating cycling with poverty is a sure means of ruining it for other income levels. This is a lesson that any marketer – or Tom Sawyer – could give you. If you want to sell something, make it look fun and inviting, and get attractive and successful people to promote it. If you want to kill cycling, promote it as an activity that the poor are stuck doing because they can’t afford a car.

■ In my experience, infrastructural best practices have no cultural boundary, as they are rooted in basic aspects of human-ness: concerns for safety, reaction times, etc. I’ve been to some four dozen countries, each of which have similar (auto) road provisions, despite the color, culture, or creed of the populace. The non-European countries with cycling infrastructure (that I’ve seen) construct facilities remarkably similar to those I’ve seen in Europe.


Seoul Bicycle Lane

Taipei Bicycle Path
 

Too, an increasing number of planners worldwide have looked to the policies of the Netherlands and Denmark for inspiration. These countries have a proven recipe for success. Even Guangzhou, a city with historically high cycling rates, has hired a Danish consultant to work on at least one bicycle project.

■ Cycling advocacy is targeted at the “affluent” (middle class?) precisely because they don’t ride. The poor do. If we want cycling among all income levels, we need to make sure that it’s socially acceptable at every social stratum. If we focus our efforts largely on the poor, we will lose them when they become the middle class. That’s not a recipe for long-term success.

Categories: Culture, Los Angeles, Policy

The weirdness of it.

May 10, 2011 2 comments

On Sunday, I packed up a cake and a camera on the Bullitt and rode over to enjoy Mother’s Day with friends. It was just a couple of miles ride, from Beverly Hills to the Fairfax District, and the day was spectacular: sunny, not too warm, a gentle breeze. I was keen to show the bike to Paris, my nine year-old “nephew,” as his dad has been trying to interest him in riding, and I thought he’d like to see a different take on it. His response? “You certainly live a weird life,” he said. Ha. Game. Set. Match.

The “alternativeness” of the bicycle is ingrained, at such an early age, in this country, and especially in this city. My dad, born and raised (in part) in Los Angeles, thought I was a bit bonkers when I took to cycling in my teens. He told me that in his youth, you either walked or drove. Riding a bicycle meant that you were too poor to have a car, and you didn’t want to be caught dead on one. That view may have changed somewhat since then, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it, not to those who get around on two wheels.

A German study that came out a few months ago emphasized the importance of peer influence in establishing cycling as a normal mode of transit. In effect, the more riders we have on the streets, the more other people will start riding. The behavior stops being “weird” and starts being, well, normal.

The trick is figuring out how to make that happen. I’m not the first to advocate for better infrastructure, and not the first to realize the “chicken-and-egg” nature of it. It’s difficult, politically, to ask for better infrastructure without riders, but it’s hard to get riders without better infrastructure.

But maybe, somehow — if we continue to soldier on, if we keep riding cakes over to Mother’s Day brunches, if we keep asking for a better cycling city — we’ll finally get there.

Categories: Culture

Crowded

February 24, 2011 4 comments

Back in the 1960s, a doctor called John Calhoun put a few rats into a cage of sorts, and let them breed as they would. The goal was simply to see what he could see. Evidently, the rats, after a few generations of rapid breeding and packed conditions, took to killing one another, even eating their young, and then, ultimately, all dying. The experiment is famous, and its conclusions have been taken by some, including Calhoun himself, as a cautionary tale for humans:

For an animal so complex as man, there is no logical reason why a comparable sequence of events should not also lead to species extinction.

I’d like to think that he’s wrong, that we humans are a better species than that, that our superior tool-making abilities would solve these kinds of issues, but every time I read about a bit of road rage — which usually has a too-crowded roadway somewhere at its heart — I despair a little. Mix these frequent reports with last week’s NPR article on “sidewalk rage” and the New Yorker‘s recent piece called “Crush Point,” about the fatal actions of crowds that want to do something (versus, say, having to deal with traffic), and I find myself wondering whether anything can help at all. Maybe we aren’t so different than the rats, after all.

I am a bicycle enthusiast, which means I usually ride for the sheer pleasure of the road, and not primarily to better my environment. When I look at bicycles from a public policy perspective, however, I have to think that among their benefits is a solution to crowded roadways. If I’m right, then our cities should promote bicycles in any way they can, including building out a decent network of separated infrastructure, as a growing consensus says is the only way towards large ridership. But from a handful of conversations I’ve had in recent months concerning Dutch-style infrastructure, I’d say that there’s a strong undercurrent of L.A. cyclists who don’t agree at all. They really don’t want more riders on the streets. The conversations generally conclude like this: “I don’t want to be stuck behind old people and children.” The opinion usually strikes me as elitist as the cartoon characters who go to theaters to hiss Roosevelt … but never mind. I’d probably dismiss it if I hadn’t heard it from influential cyclists, the very people who shape opinion in our city.

As it happens, this fear of old people and children has no basis in reality, at least not in Holland, where they do have lots of cyclists, and where we ought to look for examples of how to built our own network. Over there, you mostly can ride as fast as you want, faster than you could on streets packed with cars. The Dutch live in one of the most densely populated countries on earth (denser than even China or India), and have been working through these problems for years. (If California were as densely populated as the Netherlands, we would number somewhere near 160 million — people, that is, not rats.) Bicycles have long been part of their transportation solution, and when they speak of transportation issues, it’s common to hear them wonder how much more crowded their road space would be without bicycles. Nowadays, Dutch cycling infrastructure forms what the Dublin City Council cycling officer, Ciaran Fallon, called “a mass public transport system.” In effect, cycling is public transportation, and factored into the design of every street, everywhere.

I sometimes hear arguments that cycling is well and good for Holland precisely because the country is so dense, but cycling doesn’t work in places like California, which is only a fraction as populated. It’s a flimsy excuse, really, for density is one of those arguments that people seem to use to whatever political or personal purpose they have in mind. If you don’t want cycle track laid down on your streets, you can say either that we have too little space (every inch is taken up by cars) or too much space (people drive long distances). These both might be true statements, but they can’t both reasons to discard cycle-tracks. Bicycles are a solution to high density problems, period.

Then there’s this indisputable fact: Los Angeles County fits about half of the Netherlands’ population into one-quarter of the land area — in other words, our county is roughly twice as dense as Holland. If anything, our too-crowded roadways should make us desperate for high density solutions. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s all-but-laughable suggestion last year to make the 405 a double-decker freeway hardly counts. Even when we used to be a rich country, and maybe could have afforded such monstrosities, it wouldn’t have made sense. Nowadays, not at all.

But whatever the case, this elitist, “I-don’t-want-no-more-cyclists” attitude has got to go! If we expect someday to have any sort of political clout, if we expect to have our laws changed to make our roads safer, if we expect cycling to become a natural and normal part of everyday life, we need everyone on bicycles, the young and the old, the new and the wizened. We need to foster beginning riders and tolerate the inexperienced. We need to crowd our streets and our bike paths with riders of all shapes and sizes. We need to reach the point of saturation, where perhaps, someday, we have the problems that come from crowds, problems that would be nice to have by comparison to those we have now.