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.