Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bike Planning, Bike Riding

On Saturday morning we rode down to a library in South LA to make comments about LADOT's bike plan. Instead of having a podium with a speaker and Q&A, they decided to set up snapshots of the plan on easels around the room. LADOT and Alta Planning staff mingled with the bicyclists and planning students that showed up, their office attire setting them apart from us weekend casual folk.

The large maps showed existing and proposed bike infrastructure along city streets. I saw many comments added to the Central LA portion of the map, the area most familiar to me, with less in the Valley, and none in South LA.

Many people biked past the windows, oblivious to our shenanigans in their neighborhood.

One thing I learned is that Alta Planning has an office in LA, so the planners who worked on this project bike in LA and have done so for years. This means that, contrary to rumors, Alta didn't sweep in from fancy Portland and make a beautiful plan that LADOT then mucked up beyond repair. The setup of this workshop broadcasted that LADOT would like us to think, at least, that Alta is still very much involved in revisions to the plan.

After some hours of chatting, we followed someone who knew what he was doing to the Ballona Creek bike trail, passing through charming Leimert Park. As someone who grew up in a 1970s subdivision, I find older little boxes of ticky tacky quite cute; those late 40s and 50s American Dream homes and their lemony yellows, mwah!

We rode past Baldwin Hills on MLK, and then spilled onto the trail and made our way to the sea! A fresh breeze pushed against us, but in no time at all we reached the spit of land that the bike trail follows out from the manmade inlet of Marina del Rey.

Then after resting on a large bridge where a veritable parade of cyclists trained and some fishermen cast lines, we met up with the beach path that runs from Malibu to Palos Verdes.

On the beach, a yacht had somehow appeared. Vladimir Glytenko had left it there?
I'd read in the paper some time ago, of boat owners leaving their boats to the flow
of the sea to save money they no longer have.
Their yachts go unmoored and sometimes reach land.
How strange it looked! Alone on the shore.
But LA is surreal, and rarely a bore.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Finding Solace in Anthropology

Recently I've been pretty torn up over a developing issue in my community. An ongoing problem has come to a head, and I'm still not sure what the outcome will be. It's been enough of a block that I haven't blogged for like over a week, OMG, what's to become of my internet-addled generation...

In the midst of this community turmoil, I'm also in the most crucial period of my dissertation program: grant writing for fieldwork money. This means I need to convert all my wildly complicated ideas about bicycling, Los Angeles, cross-cultural interaction, marketing, fashion, and redesigning social life into a coherent statement.

I turned to a resource that I've seen others use, a listserv for anthropologists who work on environmental/ ecological issues. I wrote an email with a short description of my project (bicyclists are creative hybrids that have the potential to change urban life since cities, however segregated, are also creative, fluid zones).

I got so many responses, so many leads on things to read, so much encouragement, that I feel somewhat taken aback.

For a long time I've done this thing where I bash anthropology and all academic disciplines for their out-of-touchness, their lack of engagement with the real world, their forced withdrawal from "the field" for the period of intense introspection that is a dissertation.

And now, I'm so grateful to feel like I'm part of an academic community. The world is tough, confusing, messy. As an anthropologist I can inhabit a space that reflects on the world and its problems, not disengaging from it, but allowing me to suspend judgement for a little while.

Now that I feel like my life overlaps with my work too much, the long-critiqued distance of the anthropologist makes more sense.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Echo Park Time Bank Visits LA Ecovillage

A group of people braved yesterday afternoon's autumnal chill and sat out in the courtyard at the ecovillage learning about the Echo Park Time Bank. The legendary Lois Arkin had invited the time bank's founders, Lisa and Autumn, to lead an orientation here for interested folks. They both had on cozy scarves, and recapped the mission and goals of the time bank.

Since the 1980s, LA Ecovillage has been the site of a LETS (local exchange trading system) group, but participation has dwindled in the face of software that is not user friendly (I registered months ago and cannot figure out how to access the website) and in a relatively stable environment where people exchange goods and services without logging them into a system. The time bank offers us an opportunity to meet new people and gain access to all their unique skills!

I've been hearing about the Echo Park Time Bank for some time, having attended an event they hosted at Farmlab a few months ago. They arranged to have the inventor of the timebanking concept, Edgar Cahn, give a talk that evening, and now I own a signed copy of his book, No More Throw-Away People: The Co-Production Imperative. From my perspective as an anthropologist studying innovations in the way people live, exchange, and move through space, I find timebanking to be a really exciting concept.

Basically, the idea is that people do things for other time bank members, who may be strangers, and then they acquire "time dollars." Each hour of time, regardless of what the skilled or unskilled labor may be, earns and costs one time dollar. Dr. Cahn spoke about the successes timebanking has created in communities torn apart by crime and drugs, and I really appreciate that part of its use is placing value on things like companionship and domestic chores whose required time and labor have gone unnoticed.

There were about twenty people at yesterday's orientation, some existing Echo Park Time Bank members, and others interested in becoming members. We did a go-around to hear what people thought they could offer and purchase through the time bank. Greeting cards, guava harvesting, guitar lessons, and other stuff that doesn't start with "g" came up.

I hope that as the time bank and the ecovillage develop their relationship we observe an increase in class diversity among members; all the timebankers I met yesterday were lovely, but there did seem to be a certain similarity in their education and inclinations, not to mention their preference for vintage clothing (there were some really nice outfits). Crossing cultural/ socioeconomic boundaries can be very difficult, and I don't want to criticize the time bank for the fact that it attracts like-minded people. And yes, obviously we struggle with this here at LAEV as well, but the more of us working to redesign life in LA, the better!

Mom on Wheels

My mother, Laurene, came along with me and Bobby on a bike ride to the Larchmont farmer's market on Sunday.

She had not ridden a bike in a few years, so we spent about twenty minutes riding up and down the block outside the ecovillage to get her body to remember all the things that it must do to start, stop, balance, and shift on a bike.

I enjoy biking with rusty riders. It reminds me of the intricacy of using a machine like a bicycle. Mine has become a sort of extension of my body (I am a Man Machine), so I forget that sense of urgency that comes when the light changes and an uncertain foot frantically spins the pedals to get them in the right position so that you can shove off and ride forward.

Plus, since Laurene is my mother, she was a willing participant in the learning experience that comes when you move from being in a car to being on a bike. We had very interesting discussions all the way to the market and back.

The route from the ecovillage to Larchmont is easy: just follow 1st Street all the way. There are some small hills, but because of ongoing construction at Western and Normandie it is a fairly low traffic street.

Bobby and I sandwiched her, with him leading the way and me following and occasionally offering advice.

We made it to the market without incident; no moments of panic and no aggressive honkers harrassed us. There were a number of drivers who ran stop signs through intersections that we were approaching, but I emphasized the importance of eye contact as a way to make sure you can travel through intersections safely.

Laurene lives near one train station in Orange County and works near another one. She wanted to try riding on city streets as a step toward becoming a multimodal commuter, adding the option of train and bike to her current repertoire of carpooling and driving alone to work.

My mom's a good sport!

Limited Bike Space on the Pacific Surfliner

Saturday night provided a perfect opportunity for me to show Bobby my commute in Irvine; there was to be an anthropology department party near the university. We took our bikes to Union Station and made sure to arrive about twenty minutes before our train was scheduled to leave so that we had ample time to get our bikes situated.

Then it became clear that, despite the five passenger cars forming this particular southbound
Pacific Surfliner, there were only three bike parking spots on the whole train, and they were full.

Well, I thought, shoot. We could give up our plan, or we could wait an hour for the next train, or we could just hang around on the platform talking to different crew members about our dilemma. I was all set to go complain at the Amtrak ticket office about this inconvenience, but then I figured that if we just played it cool we might get somewhere after all.

I learned from one crew member that this particular train was a continuation of the Coast Starlight that travels all the way from Seattle to San Diego, and these continuation trains tend to be more crowded. It was a shame, I mused, that there is no way to reserve a bike spot online, and he told me that Amtrak actually is working on developing something like this. Let's hope so.

Sigh, too bad I would be missing my department's party, I said. What about taking the train down without the bikes? he asked. Well, that wouldn't work, because there are no direct transit connections between the Irvine train station and UC Irvine, so we'd be stranded once we got to the station.

At the last minute they did let us put our bikes in the mostly empty baggage car, though the attendant for that car made it clear that this was not her preference. The orders came from some higher up on the train. It's like we got visited by some kind of anti-bureaucracy fairy!

I don't object to the idea that trains and buses can only accommodate a certain number of bikes at any given time, but when you have a train put together from older model cars, and only one of those cars has regulation bike racks, but there is a baggage car sitting empty, it's downright silly to bar passengers from using available space.

I've already documented my commute through Irvine pretty extensively on this blog, but we did find a new bike path to use that's really swell. It starts at Turtle Rock Community Park and roughly follows Bonita Canyon Drive, then Shady Canyon, winding through the scrub hills until you crest and see all of central Orange County spread out below you, from the fireworks of Disneyland to the subdivisions creeping up the side of Saddleback Mountain. The crickets and dampness of the marine layered air made this an exceptional night ride, with a simulacrum of Tuscany off to one side and chaparral on the other. I'm sure it's a nice ride during the day, too. It ends at Sand Canyon Avenue and the 405.

View South Orange County by Bike and Transit in a larger map

Friday, October 9, 2009

City of Lights' Legal Rights Workshop

Here's another video I made for City of Lights:

Making videos for City of Lights has been fun because so far I've only used footage other people have recorded. Now I'm working on some videos based on my own camerawork, and it's a lot harder to be a cold editor when you are the reason for the jiggle joggles and odd framing of the shot!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

(Fairly Restricted) Effort to Reward Bike Commuters at UC Irvine

I just got an email from a vice chancellor at my university, UC Irvine, notifying me that this week is "Rideshare Week 2009." Ooh, I thought, maybe they'll give me a granola bar again for being a bike commuter like they did last Spring!

Actually, it turns out, bike commuters are eligible for a $50 rebate (hey, that'll pay for a lot of better snacks than granola bars!). But there are several restrictions that disqualify me. You have to live within four miles of campus, and you have to have purchased a new bike between October 5 and 9.

So maybe this will provide some impetus to close commuters who have been looking for a reason to buy a new bike and start riding to the campus?

I wonder how many takers they'll have. They're willing to give out 100 of these $50 rebates.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Burned by "An Evening with David Byrne"

On Friday night I went to an event that has been highly anticipated in the bike community here. It was to be a panel of experts offering their thoughts on bicycling in LA. David Byrne, a longtime cyclist in addition to being an artiste and musician extraordinaire, was the reason for the panel, since he's on a book tour right now for Bicycle Diaries. The other panelists represented, respectively, the streets (Jimmy Lizama, my neighbor and cofounder of the Bicycle Kitchen), the academy (Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking), and the bureaucracy (Michelle Mowery, long suffering senior bicycle coordinator to the LA Dept of Transportation).

I arrived early to promote cicLAvia to people standing in line, so I had an hour to crowd watch. The event took place at the 800 seat Aratani Theater in Little Tokyo, next to a large plaza perfect for displaying your cool bike. There were many bicyclists in attendance, but also lots of older people who looked like they enjoy attending cultural events.

I had made myself a peach charmeuse pouf dress with an orange velvet front decoration especially for the occasion. I expected a lot, like some kind of zeitgeisty moment that would ennervate the bike movement here to greater heights of street-level transformation!

David Byrne started the evening, offering his offbeat (literally, he's quite the stammerer) wisdom to the crowded theater. Instead of focusing primarily on bicycles, he spoke about city design, showing slides of architectural fantasies from the first half of the twentieth century. Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, Le Corbusier's vision of what became failed projects, all the ideas that would erase street density and allow people to avoid each other even in an urban setting. In short, Byrne is about the social life of the street, and he sees bicycling as a powerful tool enabling a richer one. He showed pictures of bicycle infrastructure innovations and crowds cycling together.

Next came Donald Shoup, a Bill Murray lookalike who deadpanned his way through a rather hilarious presentation. His basic platform is, of course, that charging more for parking makes a lot of economic sense. He connected the parking issue to bicycling through the fact that no small number of people driving in cities are looking for curbside parking, the cheap trophy of the urban dweller or visitor. This congests lanes that could otherwise leave more room for bicyclists. Then he threw in some pictures of bicycle boulevards in Berkeley for good measure, emphasizing the cost efficiency of bike infrastructure that relies on bollards and the removal of stop signs rather than large scale construction.

Following Comedian Shoup was Michelle Mowery. This woman...what can I say that is politic? She's an obvious target of bike ire because of her status as chief bureacrat, which she noted as she started her awkward presentation. Her self-presentation, as I'd seen before and again that night, mainly consists of trying to align herself with bike interests, mentioning her own bike commuting, but driving home over and over that there's absolutely nothing she can do in the face of immense financial and legal barriers to improved bike infrastructure in LA. Like many others, I call bullshit.

Perhaps it's true that Mowery once had a glowing passion for bike planning, and has had it beaten out of her through years of combat with entrenched politicians who would rather be banging hot chicks on the side than challenging their constituents to be less car-dependent. I really don't think that's the whole picture, though.

A clear distinction between the paradigm of Shoup (bike infrastructure can be cheap) and Mowery (all bike infrastructure must involve horrendously expensive grade separation and is therefore infeasible at this time) showed when she shared pictures of the current extension of the LA River bike path. She tried to emphasize how much it cost by showing big machinery, ripped up concrete, dangerous jumbles of rebar and urbanite. It's ridiculous, though, to pretend that this is the kind of bike infrastructure that current bicyclists want.

For starters, the extension currently under construction will not actually connect the northern section of the river trail with the longest stretch from Maywood to Long Beach, effectively keeping the two portions separate. Are parents who want to offer their little ones a protected place to get comfortable on a bike going to brave the truck-riddled streets of industrial Vernon to get from the northern stretch of the trail to the southern? Probably not. I'm not minimizing the accomplishment; it's certainly great to see continued work on the river trail, but if that's all you can show for your department it's a bit disappointing.

Additionally, bikes belong on the street; how sad that the fantasy of the automotive master race that will be achieved only when all the bikes and peds have been removed from roadways and put in their own place lives on in LA. Mowery even offered an anecdote to support that outdated fantasy, talking nostalgically of her teen years in Torrance when she could go to basketball practice, get home to dinner with the folks, and "be in [her] seat in Poly Pavilion in half an hour."

Poly Pavilion is at UCLA, which is about twenty miles from the south bay city of Torrance. Did she mean that she could drive twenty miles, park her car, and enter the stadium in thirty minutes? How did this fantasy of squinching distance, magically melting miles away by traveling on highways blissfully free of the nuisance of other people, relate to our current struggle to legitimize the travel of bicycles on public roadways?

It just reinforced the fact that Mowery may try to blame LADOT's failure to push progressive policy on "the bureaucracy," but really her goals do not coincide with those of bicyclists like me, who are damn sick of being treated like a gnat by the honking drivers who accelerate wildly to pass me as I try to ride safely and legally in Los Angeles. I'm not asking for futuristic and expensive bike highways; I just want a bike planning department that actually supports all users of our roads.

Mooooooving on, the final speaker was Mr. Jimmy Lizama, a man I whose energy consistently blows my mind. He told the story of the impromptu bike commute on which he embarked ten years ago, little knowing that it would start a bike fire in his life. His tale seemed like a brilliant combination of Ray Bradbury's "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit" and the gonzo spirit of ol' Hunter S. While he spoke, time lapse photos showed the stop and go traffic of an LA elementary school in the morning. Many, many children here, as elsewhere, get dropped off and picked up by cars every morning and afternoon. Jimmy's fabulous partner, Josie, takes her little boy to school on a tandem bicycle. The slide show told this story, and made the contrast between their energetic commute and the hulking stasis of the automotive crowd quite clear.

After the four presentations, the audience was invited to ask questions of the experts. The design of the theater was not conducive to movement, unfortunately; many of us would have had to crawl over at least twenty pairs of legs to get to a microphone. Those who did make it to the mics had a single-minded goal: stick it to Michelle Mowery with their tales of bike commuting woe. At the time I got fed up with the repeated if respectful references to shitty bike infrastructure here, and I know others in the audience did as well, but really, what can be expected when a bunch of people who really care about biking are invited to join together and then get mics offered to them?

Despite the presence of a guest whose work in music, art, and film made me hope for a happening, it actually turned out more like a public hearing at city hall. Apparently LA is not alone in this turn of events; the commenters at the linked BikePortland post express their own disappointment at Byrne's talk up there getting overshadowed by local experts.

I guess the moral of the story is that we all have high hopes when David Byrne comes to town, but even the man who made and wore the oversized suit cannot wave a wand and fix our problems!

I wonder how his ego feels about all this.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hmm, Does an NY Times Trends Article Count as an Ethnographic Object?

Oh yes!

Recently I've been mulling over whether my dissertation project will be as holistic as I am (zing!), including a focus both on bicycling as an embodied practice and on cohousing/ resource sharing/ alternative economies. After one of my professors listened to me free associate about my interests last spring, he posed a very troubling question: is there an inherent link between bicycling and these alternative arrangements of home and money?
Well, there is where I live, LA Ecovillage, which has been the site of historic moments in the LA bike movement (founding of LACBC, founding of the Bike Kitchen), and where there's a major emphasis on alternative transportation.

But who needs her own experience when she can just point to the New York Times?

The linked article, on a trend toward intentional house sharing in NYC, has got it all, from references to bicycling as a common interest, to commenter Jay who claims, in somewhat broken terms (spelling does count, folks!), that since he did not have a positive experience sharing house, "communism does not work."
Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Not that I didn't know that many Americans don't know communism from Superman, but also ha ha!

(For the record, "communism" is far too loaded a term to use to describe something like four Jewish artists in Brooklyn sharing a lease).

One time when I was sharing a house, this guy went psycho and broke everything he could in the place, and then smeared some blood on a wall. There you go, "communism" does not work! Also, because I had not taken out the trash one time, he spat on my bed! But don't blame mental illness, blame "communism."

Another time, a severely depressed roommate reneged on an agreement and then gossiped to my best friend, causing a two year rift in our relationship. Flawed "communism" strikes again!

All those experiences aside, when I got to Los Angeles and felt like I was a vulnerable little animal riding my bicycle alone, surrounded by malicious, hungry, and motorized tons of steel (aka cars), nothing made me feel like I might become human again like visiting LA Ecovillage and discovering that not only was it possible to embrace my values in LA, I could also live in a community of fellow travelers.

It's not that co-housing ensures an impossibly utopian home life; it's that people are willing to put up with each other's occasional shit because it's a joint project. There's a big difference between intentional co-housing and five college kids smoking bongs in a living room they're mutually paying for. I'm sure there are millions of people out there who can't/don't understand that.

So for me it's all tied up; shedding a car, moving into cohousing, dealing with my intentionally offensive neighbor who shouts curses at even our most mild-mannered guests, learning how to feel safe riding a bike in LA.

If it takes evidence from the NY Times to prove to my dissertation committee that this thing, this movement of bodies and shared lives, is really happening, so be it, silly comments and all!