Friday, December 10, 2010

At the Effect of a Bus? Oh the Shame.

The Long Beach airport seduces LA travelers with its tiny terminal and Jet Blue fares. It's a bit out of the way, though, a few miles from the Blue Line regional connector train and even further from downtown Long Beach's relatively well-served public transit grid. My ex-boyfriend Bobby discovered some time ago that biking from the Wardlow Blue Line station makes the most sense for the able bodied among us. Today I was returning, bikeless, from a long trip to the South and the Pacific Northwest, so I would need to choose between an overpriced taxi ride or an inconvenient bus ride to get me to the Blue Line.

I'm not a fan of taxis; being a cyclist has made me very sensitive to aggressive driving, and most cab rides make me feel like I'm about to be party to murder. Plus the last time I took a cab from the Blue Line to the airport the cabbie and I got into an argument about the legality of him holding a cell phone to his ear as we careened madly down a highway. That didn't make me feel too good about the world, so this time around I decided to save $18 and take a bus for $1.25.

I bought a coffee so I'd have change for the bus, telling the guy at the counter my plan. He cheerfully commented that I'd be lucky to get home that day, and told me a story about having to eventually call in sick to work one day after the bus failed to come for hours. Didn't the bus service understand that working people rely on the bus?

Then I set out for the bus stop, a half mile walk away from the airport. This meant strolling down a sidewalk with an eight lane road on one side and various warehouses on the other, with my tote bag occasionally slipping off my shoulder and jarring the hot coffee in my hand. I started enjoying taking part in a deliberate disruption of this particular built environment, which had been designed to accommodate flows of automotive traffic. Whether intentional or merely shortsighted, this street erased people like me and the coffee shop worker from the equation, imagining the space to be used only by humans melted into sealed luxury capsules.

I caught my bus, fortunately, and headed to the Blue Line. For some reason the bus driver didn't want me to pay my fare till after we'd passed under the 405, where I saw some pedestrians walking across freeway on and off ramps without even a pretense of a sidewalk left.

After we passed Redondo on Willow the bus driver got off the bus and got into the driver's seat of a black BMW. A man smoking a long cigarette sat in the passenger seat. While the new bus driver adjusted herself the BMW zoomed away.
I think this sums up one of the biggest contradictions in public transportation. Operators make a middle class wage and eschew using the service they provide to other working people. What if the former poor had less contempt for the current poor? Would bus service be better? Of course I hardly think people can be blamed for slamming the door on what they consider to be low class (such as riding the bus) once they've raised their incomes. Is this not the American dream?

I've been riding trains, buses, and bikes long enough to understand that Americans have a horror of being perceived as inconvenienced. Waiting for a bus? Who would endure such humiliation? Spend two days on a train? It just doesn't make sense! Ride a bike instead of driving? It all smacks of disempowerment, even though people don't usually come out and say it. The self-determination implied by driving and flying act as a security blanket for people who know what it is to struggle.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans

Having registered to present a paper on my dissertation project at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting, I took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans from November 17-19.

This train passes through the southern deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, before heading into the drab flats of Louisiana. I was in for two nights of upright sleeping. I hoped the train would be half sold so I could get more space than I'd paid for, but she was full up. I'm not the only one who travels around Thanksgiving, it turns out.

I got a seatmate at the first stop, and learned that she had spent three days traveling from outside Atlanta to Southern California for a doctor's appointment, only to turn around and get back on the train the same day. Yikes! This lady was quite nice, and had her reasons for undertaking such a trip. She'd never been on a plane, but suffered from anxiety attacks and didn't want to subject herself to a flight. The way the train schedules work out, you have to stay overnight in New Orleans if you wish to take the Crescent further into the south, which is what my seatmate needed to do. She planned to stay in her hotel for 16 hours rather than explore the city because she expected to be a crime victim if she left the building. This reminded me of the fears Michiganders expressed when they heard that I was biking through their fair state to Detroit. Their bright smiles at the spectacle of bike tourists would disappear into masks of disdainful confusion, accompanied by warnings to arrive there before dark. I started paying attention to race after talking to my seatmate.

As I've written on this blog before, I find the entrenched segregation of American cities strange to navigate as a Chicana bike hipster. Would there be visible and rigid color lines in New Orleans? Would I end up biking through some dangerous neighborhood out of ignorance? Would I blend into a mass of bike hipsters in some gentrifying zone?

The Sunset Limited leaves LA around 2 pm, giving a few hours of daylight for gazing out the window. The first morning on the train you find yourself looking sleepily at the shacks of Ciudad Juarez on one side, and at El Paso on the other. For many hours through the Texan desert you skirt the border, my cell phone's occasional texts alerting me to Mexican phone company prices told me.

I happen to be a big fan of desert landscapes, so I found the Texas day to be quite lovely.

You pull into San Antonio around 9 pm, and then the train hangs out there for three hours. I trekked into the city's historic/ tourist district with many other passengers, looking for a coffee shop, but all I could find were corporate franchise operations. Fuddrucker's, Hard Rock, and Denny's galore! Even the Starbucks was closed. Downtown San Antonio has been engineered to enchant. There are Cinderella carriages outlined in L wire waiting to chauffeur you about, the sunken canal lined with shops called the River Walk, plazas of historic significance, and the Alamo. It's a pretty place, but it sure felt impersonal.

Around midnight we continued east, and when I woke up the next day they were calling the flatlands outside the window Louisiana. I spent the day feverishly editing my conference paper, and we pulled into New Orleans on time at 3 pm on the 19th. So would I again be an ambiguous Mexican in a land of black and white?

New Orleans has a fine old combined Amtrak/Greyhound station.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mom Tries Carfree Commute, Wins x1000!

I got up before dawn today and did something I've never done before: helped my mom commute via train and bike.

My mom, Laurene, lives quite close to a train station in Orange County, and some time ago I tried to convince her that she should try riding the Metrolink to work in Santa Ana. Her office in Santa Ana is a little under two miles from the train station there, which takes about forty minutes to walk or fifteen minutes to bike. No bus routes shorten the length, unfortunately. For a while we talked about her getting a bike and trying it out, and I made a map that showed a good route for the Santa Ana portion, but it fell by the wayside in the crush of our busy lives.

Enter CicLAvia and some unexpected back pay! My mom and my little sister cut short a vacation to make it to CicLAvia, and they walked the whole length of the route, starting with me at Hollenbeck Park in the morning and reaching the bicycle district right at 2:30 pm. Like everyone else who made it out that day, they got infected with the smiling disease and felt great about the whole thing. So great, in fact, that my mom invited me to go bicycle shopping with her. Yowza! When our earlier conversations about getting her set up with a bike stalled it was partially because she does not have the luxury of thumping down hundreds of dollars on a new bike, and I didn't have time to find her a good used one. Recently, though, she received some years of back pay, and decided that a bike would be a worthy purchase.

So we took a trip to her local bike shop, Buy My Bikes, and decided that a folding bike would be best since she needed something lightweight for lifting on and off the train. A folding bike could also be stowed under her desk as needed. Even though she works for a large organization, only one other person is bike commuting as far as she knows, and there is no bike parking or other kind of support available.

Last weekend while I was out of town I started receiving texts about how she'd bought the bike! My older sister took pictures and sent them to me, and my mom was just beaming up a storm in her new helmet. The new bike, a Giant Expressway, coordinates easily with everything because it is black, unlike my folder, a Dahon Speed that is grey and blue (perhaps this is unimportant to those who do not compulsively match, but it matters to me).

We looked at our schedules, and decided that this Friday would be a good time to try out the carfree commute. I went down to her house yesterday afternoon, and we got up in the darkness of 5:30 am to get ready. She needs to be at work by 7:30 am, so we got on a train that would leave us at Santa Ana station by 6:50 am. As I drowsily put myself together, I had to keep reminding myself that unlike other mornings when I've gone to work with her, we would not be getting in the car and we would not be sitting in traffic.

And then the fun began, by which I mean I realized anew that there are lots of little movements that I've learned that meld my body with my bike. Little movements that are hard to describe, and that I didn't think to mention until I'd look behind me and realize that I'd left Mom in some awkward tangle. Pedals, for example, do not automatically return to your preferred position for starting off again when you've stopped. In fact, if you're rusty as a cyclist you may not even know how to get going again as soon as a signal changes. Fortunately we didn't need to stop at any signals on our short ride to the train station in the cool, still morning.

Getting on the train stressed my mom out, she said, because we had to quickly lift and maneuver our bikes. How did I even know where to get on with my bike? I explained that I look for the bike symbols on the train doors, and position myself in the middle of the platform so I can see how many bikes are on each car before deciding what car to get on myself. Hmm, I thought to myself, this is kind of a lot of information to absorb in one morning.

We rode on up to Santa Ana and got our bikes off the train without incident. It was time to start some more serious, if still light, vehicular cycling. I briefly noted the sunrise streaks to the east over the mountains as we walked our bikes to the intersection where we'd be joining traffic. Nobody was waiting to go our way, so I got out in the lane and positioned myself to go when the light changed. All of a sudden my mom seemed surprised that we were going to ride in the street, and confusedly came out near me, but couldn't get herself going fast enough to catch the light. A very short signal cycle it was, designed not for a novice bike commuter but for speeding cars. I waited on the other side of the intersection, and she made it through with no problem the second time around. Then we headed up through a few four way stops, and made a left onto a low traffic street.

Strategically, I'd planned a route that crossed major streets with signalized intersections so my mom wouldn't have to deal with asserting her right to cross traffic. I shared tips as we rode along, and a teenage boy on a fixie flew past on the wrong side of the street just as I was talking about things to avoid. Nice and instructive, little dude! The route passed lickety split, and we'd made it to her office.

I left pretty immediately to get back to the station so I could come home to LA, and on my ride back I noticed a lot of things that made me feel frustrated. Drivers cutting off children in crosswalks, confused drivers assuming I would run stop signs, poor street conditions, traffic calming that makes it much harder for pedestrians and bikes to flow through into a wealthy neighborhood. And yet my mom is willing to join us bike commuters in our fight to make our roads safer for all.

I'm so proud of you, Mom!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Polling Place of My Dreams

Yesterday, Voting Day, I moseyed across the street to a Korean church and followed the signs to my polling place. The large room had a stuffy feeling because so many people were there as volunteers or to vote.

First I was directed to a table by a middle aged Latino man. There an older Korean lady looked at my ID and directed me to another table. At the second table a young Latina woman directed me back to the first table. We figured out the problem; my license has my old address on it. We exchanged smiles as we got things sorted out, I signed in the book, and went on to an elderly Latina woman who I know from her active presence in the neighborhood. Armed with my ballot and her warm encouragement, I used the Ink-A-Vote to do my civic duty. Then a Chicano teenager helped me feed my ballot into the processing machine and gave me my "I Voted" sticker.

Instead of organizing into suburban enclaves according to ethnic group, the diverse residents of my neighborhood mingle in stores, on sidewalks, and in polling places. This is my favorite thing about living in Central Los Angeles. Sadly I think a lot of the diversity that I'm reveling in results from people's low incomes; maybe lots of them would prefer to be living out in the San Gabriel Valley. But I see in my neighborhood a vision of a future United States that embraces population density, that embraces difference, that does not prefer to isolate children in exurban bunkers connected only by trails of SUV exhaust.

My joy in seeing so many kinds of faces sharing smiles about voting really enhanced the already exciting experience of enacting democracy. Thanks Bimini Place!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Notes from a Street Corner

This morning at about 6:50 am I dragged my sleepy, sweater-clad self a few blocks from home to help gather data for LACBC's sharrows campaign. I had been assigned to try and survey passing cyclists about their experiences cycling on 4th Street in Koreatown, which is one of the streets that LADOT marked with sharrows this summer.

I've been observing cyclists in Long Beach and LA for three years now, both as a fellow cyclist and as an ethnographer. Based on my familiarity with the region I expected to see, in this densely populated urban neighborhood I call home,
1) few helmets
2) mostly men
3) mostly Latinos.

The bicyclists passing 4th and Mariposa between 7 and 9 am this morning fit the descriptions I had in mind. However, anecdotal familiarity with who bikes in a region does not constitute the kind of data the bike coalition needs to build a case for sharrows having a positive impact on interactions between road users. Our transportation institutions' continued reliance on quantitative data means that numbers speak louder than narratives.

As part of my education in ethnography, I've learned to question the sovereignty of survey data. In this case, I wondered about whose opinions were being recorded. What kinds of cyclists are able to stop and take a survey during the morning rush hour? What if a volunteer had been posted who could not translate the survey into Spanish, as I found myself doing?

Despite the high winds roaring around yesterday afternoon, the city has not yet been dried out by seasonal Santa Ana winds, and it was crisp and cold this morning as I biked over to 4th and Mariposa. I met another volunteer, who handed me the survey forms, pamphlets with information about sharrows, and a bright green sign reading "Bike Survey!" Then I settled into the corner with my coffee, ready to flag down cyclists for two hours. I liked the idea of staying put in a place I usually zoom through on my bike.

I had quite a nice time chatting with passing cyclists, even those who did not have time to stop. That neighborhood had lots of other kinds of traffic, too, from morning dog walkers to parents walking or driving their kids to school. I didn't see any kids (or dogs, for that matter) getting toted on bikes, although I did see a teenage couple riding off down the sidewalk together on one bike.

Certain cyclists' voices get amplified while others never get heard, as many of my collaborators in the bike movement know all too well. I'm glad I got to help record the thoughts of some cyclists who may not have the time or interest to get involved in bike activism, but I'm also glad I got to help create quantitative data about biking in LA. In the United States bicycling has not yet proved its worth to those who would rather continue to view driving as the best way to get around. Being able to translate cyclists' presence and feedback into quantitative data helps legitimize activists' claims that simple signage like sharrows can make cycling feel safer.

My hope is that one day our cities will get out of this paradigm of having to prove, through numbers and checkboxes, that bicycling deserves support as a legitimate form of urban transport. One day when our policymakers look around they will see what the bicycle helps make possible: a bustling landscape of democratic transportation options, rather than wasteland of fear where people continue to drive because they feel unsafe outside their cars.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Amtrak, Why No Semi-Private Bunks?

I've been planning a trip in November to New Orleans for the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. The Sunset Limited from LA to New Orleans will take two days. I'm fine with that on the way to the conference, since that's probably when I'll be writing about my LA bike research for my talk. I definitely appreciate the fact that as a grad student engaged in fieldwork, my time is not so scheduled and I don't mind a long train ride. And coach tickets on Amtrak are cheap city. It will cost $136 to do that trip in mid-November. There's a big jump in price, though, if you want something more than basic coach. If I wanted a sleeping accommodation and meals, I'd have to add $324.

How come there's no middle ground? The Canadian rail system, VIA, has semi-private bunks and other combinations available. Amtrak only gives you a seat and no meals or a private room and all meals. I'd be happy to pay extra for a little bunk, but traveling alone it makes no sense to pay more than double the cost.

I wonder what led them to decide to offer only coach or roomettes and above on long distance trains.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Los Angeles Loves Being Carfree

Yesterday I got to witness the realization of a dream I'd shared with a few other people since October 2008. I got to see how many people would bike through this city, all too often dismissed as a non-city, if we opened our streets to them.

It hasn't quite sunk in yet, that we made it happen in LA, that CicLAvia brought out somewhere between 60,000-100,000 Angelenos and visitors.

This morning I've been perusing others' accounts of the event, and thinking about how I just knew, as soon as I went to Bogotá and saw the ciclovía there, that this would be a great thing for LA.

I didn't know so many people would agree.

As an anthropology student I've been grappling for a few years with the disjuncture between a preference for driving in LA and the concrete reality of the city, not suburb, that I inhabit. I'm just starting my dissertation fieldwork on bikes, bodies, and the city of Los Angeles. What a gift to be able to see tens of thousands of my neighbors enact the possibilities of a carfree LA as the starting point for my fieldwork! There could be no more reassuring confirmation that my goal of combining academic research with community engagement lies within my grasp.

I know a lot more now about what it takes to facilitate an open street event. I hope the people who attended CicLAvia on 10-10-10 clamor for more so that they don't have to wait for another two years to revel in our beautiful urban landscape. When we first started talking about holding a ciclovía in LA people would reminisce about ArroyoFest, the event that shut down the 110 freeway to Pasadena in 2003. CicLAvia will stick in Los Angeles' mind for years, but it should be because of an ongoing opportunity to live in our streets like we did yesterday for five hours.

Thank you, Los Angeles! More specifically, thank you Bobby Gadda, Stephen Villavaso, Colleen Corcoran, Jonathan Parfrey, Allison Mannos, Sandra Hamlat, Joe Linton, and, more recently and to great effect, Aaron Paley, Amanda Bromberg, and Jenn Su. The mayor's office and the offices of the council districts through which the route passed (CD1, CD4, CD9, CD13, CD14), the neighborhood councils that showed us support early in our planning process, and all the community groups that got excited about the idea, gave us an opportunity to change LA.

And of course, thank you Jaime Ortiz Mariño and the city of Bogotá for inspiring us to begin with.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From Bogotá to LA

As a grad student in cultural anthropology, which is the study of modern human cultures and habits, I started studying transportation issues in 2008. Mainly, how LA can be hard to move through. Have you noticed? Maybe in a car it's easy to ignore, if you roll up the windows and pump up the stereo, but outside, on a bike or on your feet, you get the feeling that you're not a human anymore, but a target in a video game.

I started hearing about this thing called a ciclovía, a Colombian event that happens every week and gives people a chance to experience their streets without the push of automotive traffic. Thanks to a research grant from my university, UC Irvine, I traveled to Bogotá in August 2008 to check out this phenomenon.

At its least exciting, the ciclovía just looked like regular people enjoying a bike ride on a Sunday morning.

But then, on another Sunday, the whole city came out for a parade taking place on the ciclovía route, which travels right through the heart of Bogotá's busiest districts.

At CicLAvia on 10/10/10, I don't expect all Angelenos to organize themselves into parades. I mean, for our city, a bunch of people out enjoying their streets in simple ways will be a very exciting thing. In my mind what counts is seeing our city move toward supporting ALL modes of transport, not just automotive ones.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Confusing the Cyborg by Changing the Bike

In thinking about bicyclists as body-city-machines (cyborgs of a sort), I did a lot of writing this spring about the varying impacts of combining particular bodies, particular cities, and particular machines. This summer I've had the chance to play with this concept in the physical world rather than in the realm of theory because I left my own Panasonic 10 speed road bike at home in Los Angeles while traveling around the country.

Detroit found me on a cruiser with coaster brakes, an arrangement I'd not tried since 2003 or so. I rapidly came to enjoy the feeling of upright cycling, especially since Detroit's such a flat city that no hill seemed to big to conquer on my rusty steed.

Then I headed to Portland, where I borrowed a Nishiki one speed road bike. At first I felt pretty awkward on that guy, cause he seemed to be a wannabe fixed gear. Only the front wheel had a brake, and it was positioned on the inside of the right handlebar. I quickly realized, as I narrowly missed crashing the bike as soon as I tried it out, that I'm accustomed to stopping by bracing myself against my handlebars or pedals. In this case, since the bike had a freewheel and was not an actual fixie, there was no resistance from the pedals, and the position of the one brake on the inside of the handlebar made it impossible for me to stop gracefully at first. I thought I wouldn't be able to get over this problem, but then after riding the Nishiki for a while my body learned the right moment to put my foot on ground, and I started to feel pretty nimble.

In moments of stress, though, I would forget where the brake was. This made me pretty scared about using the bike to zoobomb, which I had decided I needed to try out for ethnographic purposes. Fortunately the hill people bomb down is not that intense if you're not on a kiddie bike (aka I'm a wuss), and even though the rain had just begun when I swooped down from the zoo a few Sundays ago, the Nishiki held fast and I braked up a storm.

I'm back in LA for the moment, with the use of my own dear Panasonic. Next week, though, I'm heading to New York to see about DIY bike infrastructure there. Who knows what kind of bike I shall borrow?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Flat as Art Object

Two Sundays ago I biked to Pico Union to attend an art event hosted by g727, the downtown art gallery co-owned by one of my favorite LA artists, James Rojas. It was to be a conversation between James, who is also an urban planner, an artist, Carmen Argote, and historic preservationist Edgar Garcia. To be discussed were issues of space and domestic life.

I hadn't read the event details closely, so I was charmed to discover that the event was taking place inside the artwork itself, 720 sq. ft.: Household Mutations. Argote had transformed her childhood home, a flat in a typical LA fourplex from the very early 20th century, using white paint on the carpeting to highlight the shape of the place. The floorplan became the focal point.

James led us on a tour of the flat, pointing out details that indicated when it had been built, and how there probably hadn't been a large New York style brick apartment building next door when the flat's large windows were planned.

We followed him back into the bedroom, whose odd windows must have once looked out on a panorama of the San Gabriel Mountains. Now you can see a carport.

Then we headed into the flat upstairs for a more conventional discussion of the piece by the three experts. Apparently Argote's family has owned the fourplex since the early 70s, and has housed various family members over the years. Interestingly, some of these family members were present at the event and chimed in with details about the house and the neighborhood. Argote spoke about how the shape of that home had been burned into her memory through repeated actions, and Rojas and Garcia spoke about the impact of east coast-style floorplans on immigrant families' domestic rhythms, so to speak.

As someone interested in the interplay of infrastructure and behavior, I found the whole thing terribly fascinating. If I weren't such an itinerant grad student (read: broke traveler) I'd buy a print of the Craigslist ad they made for the exhibit.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Social Life of Long Distance Trains

When I first started riding trains in summer 2008 I knew a lot about the Greyhound and a lot about flying. The train contains a different kind of social life than those other modes.

I'm again traveling from Chicago to Portland on the Empire Builder like I did that first summer, only this time I'm a connoisseur. I know how to avoid long conversations when I'd rather stare out the window. I know to bring along a bottle of lavender Dr. Bronner's so I can feel somewhat refreshed.

Part of this knowledge is spatial, like knowing what types of interactions happen where. If you're traveling coach, you may have only a sliver of space to yourself. The "sightseer lounge" has lots of seating, but tends to get crowded and loud. I like to sit there if I'm working on a project, or if I want to have casual conversations.

I try to avoid talking to my seatmate if I have one because I like talking to strangers so much that I will keep talking as long as they're on the train. This can lead to things like watching Jennifer Aniston rom coms with someone who works for a coroner's office in suburban Chicago. While this is fun, I prefer to maintain a sense of solitude when I'm riding for days, especially because I always put together an ambitious list of writing, reading, or sewing tasks to accomplish while en route.

Besides figuring out a system for how to not feel crowded even in a very public space, the other thing that makes the train work for me is the ladies' dressing room. Each coach car has one. It's just a little room with two sinks and a couch with its own enclosed bathroom on one end, but brushing my teeth is made much more appealing when there's not an Amtrak toilet in the room.

It's tricky, though, cause there's no lock on the dressing room's outer door. I used to feel huffy about people coming in when I was using the room, but today a lady came in while I was performing my morning toilette and we had a lovely conversation about bikes.

People react differently to the social space of the train. I witness plenty of interactions between conductors and travelers clearly miffed about the fact that they'll have to share a seat.
I mean, it is a lot nicer when you don't have to share a seat, can't deny it.

But there's a lot of camaraderie, too. When I ride in a sleeper I always enjoy getting to know the people I'm seated with at meals, and I always overhear lots of getting-to-know-you conversations. I think there's one going on behind me right now.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Greenfield Village

When I had had my fill of ironic distance from Henry Ford's simulacrum of small town America, I headed toward the exit. An old motor coach from the 30s or 40s was barreling down the road I was walking beside, and tooted its horn at some people crossing the road. One of the people, a young man, started running to get out of the way. The other person, a middle aged lady, stiffly stopped and waved the bus on. The bus driver seemed a little sheepish about this, but continued on after a brief pause. Then the lady finished crossing the street. I heard her grumbling to her companions about how she can't stop suddenly. Her legs were covered in swollen veins.

Greenfield Village could not shut out the tension between speed and social life.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Biking into the Belly of the Beast (by which I mean Dearborn)

On Monday I rode my loaned cruiser from Corktown to Dearborn, ready to spend some scrilla on admission to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum.

I used Google Maps' bike directions to figure out a route, and I had passed through Dearborn when arriving in Detroit from a bike tour across Michigan last summer, so I figured it couldn't be that impossible to bike there.

The first impressive thing I encountered was this massive pedestrian bridge project that connects Bagley Street across the Fisher Freeway.

Rather striking, Calatrava-esque. It was totally empty, though. And why are there so many bike racks? Who is locking up their bike at this bridge instead of taking it across the bridge to Mexicantown? Nobody, apparently.

This thing looked brand spanking new. There was also a mural.

I think it's probably supposed to celebrate international friendship, but it looks more like a yummy rendering of Detroit and Windsor as colorful pizzas. Also, it's a well known problem that you can't take a bike across either the bridge or the tunnel on the international border. A bit ironic, then, to have these fancy bike racks in the foreground of the mural.

Once I crossed the ped bridge I noticed that it creates a striking contrast with the iconic Michigan Central Station looming on the horizon.

I decided to stop in at Café con Leche on Vernor Highway in Mexicantown cause I wanted to see if it reminded me of LA. It did. Seems like a pleasant meeting spot. When I was leaving, having been latte-d to perfection, a strange young gent pulled his bike up by mine and asked if I was so-and-so's friend. Turns out he is on the board of directors of the Hub/Back Alley Bikes, and I was supposed to talk to him at the chicken races the day before, but I'd run off to enjoy a bike ride through downtown before sunset. It was a perfect illustration of the best side of Detroit's networked universe, at least relative to the vastness of LA. In LA you can be working on some problem at the same time as someone else and have no idea. For example, CicLAvia recently found out that the city of Santa Monica will be holding its own ciclovía on the same day as us (10-10-10! What fun it will be!). Who knows how long they have been planning this?
But in Detroit, it seems more likely that people cross paths when working on similar projects.

I rode on to Dearborn, passing through first a scrapyard area where I probably breathed in some metal dust, then a working class neighborhood, and then through some legitimately enormous industrial complexes.

I think I might have skirted the Ford Rouge plant.

I'm an experienced vehicular cyclist, so even though I was on a squeaky old cruiser and a few times I wondered if I'd accidentally turned onto a freeway onramp I didn't feel too uncomfortable with semis whizzing past. Plus, it wasn't heavy traffic, just a truck passing every so often with plenty of lanes to spare.

When I reached an area in Dearborn that seemed to be nothing but suburban office complexes and the most blandly exclusive subdivisions I could imagine, I did hop onto a sidewalk. But then I took a lane again once I saw street signs directing me to the Henry Ford stuff.

I felt a haughty pride as I passed under the gates of the park. My princess dress may have been drenched with sweat, but I'd ridden a bike to a monument of car culture tucked into one of the least human scale landscapes I've seen in a while.

I've been using an iPhone app called Cyclemeter to track my bike rides, so here's a record of how I got to the Henry Ford from Corktown.

View Larger Map

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Detroit ≠ Détruit

(I couldn't resist that pun, it cycles through my mind regularly)

This summer I'm doing a project where I compare formal bike infrastructure and DIY approaches to making biking easier in LA, Portland, Detroit, and New York. Why four cities? Yeah I don't know. Comparisons are seductive for anthropologists.

I'm researching bike infrastructure issues in Detroit now. There are a few off street bike paths here, but for the most part there are no bike lanes, no signage, nothing to indicate the presence of bicycles. There are a fair number of bicycles, though.

When I visited this place last summer, a few things struck me:
1. So many European intellectuals visiting at any given time
2. Everyone here knows each other
3. Bicycling is a horse of a different color here.

It all still holds. Detroit has become a laboratory for people curious about urban farming, architecture, decay, rebuilding a localized economy, and shifting away from cars. Living here seems hard in some ways, for instance the center city suffers from a lack of services. If you are alternatively minded, though, the opportunities for creative solutions to survival overflow.

The city's wide avenues work well for bicycling, especially because density is a hard thing to find here. The only crowd I've seen so far had gathered around a high school football game. I knew something must be up, cause I was riding along an otherwise empty street and came upon lots and lots of parked cars. Then I saw the game, which explained the people.

Bicycling here feels very free in some ways. The painted lines of the street seem irrelevant on a four lane street with nobody else around. I can turn in wide arcs instead of sharp darts. Oops, missed the turn; make a big ol' U turn, no problem.

At the same time, many parts of the city have been abandoned, creating grids of empty fields marked by one or two remaining old row houses. As an outsider I don't know how to gauge where it is a better or worse idea to travel. I like to drift around and explore unfamiliar cities, and it is so easy to bike here that it seems inviting to just wander around. The other day, though, I found myself on a block of ruins with no major street in sight, a disabled person sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the road, a few pedestrians walking toward me, and one or two cars cruising past. Oh shit, it dawned on me. Am I safe?

Part of it stems from my Californian ignorance regarding Midwestern color lines. As a brown person, I do not understand how to negotiate the habitual divides between blacks and whites in this part of the country. What do Detroiters think when I ride by on a cruiser, clad in some turquoise dress, looking my most Mexican with my deep summer tan? Does race matter when one is clearly subculturally marked "hipster"? How does socioeconomic status get revealed through things like a vintage bicycle and pink plastic glasses?

The other factor I've encountered in bicycling in Detroit stems from an opposite problem to what we face in LA. There, I worry about not being noticed by drivers. Their lack of attention freaks me out on a regular basis. Here, the attention is a-flowin', but it's pretty sexualized. I am not accustomed to people talking to me through car windows, or trying to have a conversation with me as I ride past. When I'm riding in LA I feel pretty insulated from unwanted social interaction, like much more so than when I'm walking or using public transportation. In Detroit I haven't tried taking a walk cause it seems like there would be no buffer at all between me and every man who wants to comment on my body in some way.

In short, the experience of bicycling in Detroit becomes highly gendered because of cultural norms regarding attention to female bodies, and the requisite exposure of bodies in an activity like cycling.

I'm still enjoying being here and biking here, though, despite feeling like a spectacle from outer space sometimes. I went to an art festival on Belle Isle (America's largest city-owned island park) yesterday. The people contributing to Access Arts got to design installations around trees, fields, and other earth forms in the park. Visitors could pick up maps from various points around the island.

My favorite piece, Jacklyn Brickman's "Vernal Pond(s)," invited visitors to make sounds with various devices strung up in a tree or attached to a fence. A little booklet gave instructions on how to approach the noisemakers, and since the artist was on hand she explained that each sound derived from a frog call.

This part of the installation let you pluck a rubberband that had been strung across a plastic cup. We were instructed to wait ten seconds between plucks. Each cup produced a slightly different tone. I think this one referenced tree frog calls.

Then I rode back into town, and oh my gosh, the combination of the blue green river and the gorgeous sky, so lovely.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cruisers...aren' bad

I got to Detroit at 12:30 am last night, and was promptly spirited away to a wonderful land of showers and couches by my gracious hostess, Mary Beth.

This morning we headed to Ann Arbor, where she's been househunting in preparation for starting a grad program at University of Michigan in the fall. We took along some bikes so she could show me around the place.

I assumed Ann Arbor would be similar to Eugene, Berkeley, Austin, or any other college town I've visited. And it was, which is not a bad thing. Lots and lots of subdivided houses crammed with tiny units housing students sit in relaxed neighborhoods, and the numerous porches see frequent use. It reminded me that this part of the country seems teeming with life to me, what with all its humidity and greenery. I'm still digging this "exotic Midwest" thing for whatever reason.

We rode bikes around the university area. Mary Beth fixed me up with this pretty old Schwinn cruiser, the same kind of bike I'd just been bashing yesterday with a friend while having lunch in Chicago on my train layover.

As I am accustomed to hand brakes, and know how to get my road bike's pedals quickly in position to start off again, I found stopping and starting on this guy a little difficult. But I actually enjoyed riding it a lot more than I expected. It does feel awfully regal to sit up straight and pedal down the middle of the road, never fidgeting with shifters or bending over the handlebars to get speed.

Part of the pleasantness derived from the general behavior of Ann Arbor drivers, who appear to have surrendered to the inevitability of unexpectedly darting pedestrians and bicyclists. Even as I struggled to stop just so, or started pedaling in anything but a straight line, I felt pretty safe. Nobody honked, nobody swerved. I didn't notice much bike signage or even many bike lanes, but there still seemed to be a general attitude of acceptance of bikes. People freaking shared the road!

Grabbing lunch in a food co-op, I had a conversation with the cashier about the differences between biking in LA and in Ann Arbor because he had spent some time commuting from Inglewood to West Hollywood. This thing on my leg, which I keep forgetting about, keeps revealing my secret bike identity to strangers. Mission accomplished.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Southwest Chief, Over and Over Again

I'm once again speeding east on the Southwest Chief, Amtrak's line running from Los Angeles to Chicago. My destination is Detroit, which can be reached from Chicago on a line called the Wolverine (grrr! Ferocious).
I can't remember how many times I've taken this train. Maybe this is my fifth ride in the last two years?
Perhaps my favorite part of train travel happens in the middle of the night, when I get awoken from my light sleep by a sudden lurch as the train stops. I look outside, and there sits some old brick town that has been slowly drying up since the demise of Route 66. This time I woke up at Needles, on the state line between California and Arizona, and beheld a massive ghostly complex sitting next to the tracks. I couldn't figure out if it was a ruin or some half finished parking garage with Doric columns as flourishes. It went on and on down the tracks, layer upon layer of colonnades.
Up top it read "El Garces," so I took advantage of my mobile phone and discovered that it is an old Harvey House that is being restored.
Fred Harvey built an empire on providing good meals and clean beds to rail travelers in that bygone age when enough Americans rode trains that it made sense to feed them something better than slop.
Now most of his hotels sit empty and decaying along the tracks, hopefully haunted by the hardworking eastern girls Harvey recruited and the travelers they served.
I just passed through Las Vegas, New Mexico in a thunderstorm and saw another Harvey House, the Castaneda. Its windows can't see for the boards covering them.
As I was leaving Union Station in LA I noticed that there will soon be a Subway Sandwiches franchise stinking up the place.
Fred Harvey, rise from your grave and comfort us weary travelers!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Drifting in East Hollywood

My recent visit to Portland reminded me how much I like walking through streetcar suburbs while awash in delightful songs. On Sunday I decided to go for a solitary ramble in my neighborhood in LA, which sits at the convergence of Koreatown, East Hollywood, and Virgil Village.
First I cut up to Cafecito Organico at Hoover and Bellevue, the coffee shop run by a fellow ecovillager. Iced coffee in hand, I proceeded to bounce across the neighborhood while listening to two Marshall Crenshaw songs on repeat. I pretty much had it to myself. When I got near churches other humans would appear, but it was mostly just me, old houses, and broken sidewalks torn apart by upthrusting roots.
I walked over to the Bicycle District at Heliotrope and Melrose, then continued along Melrose under the 101. At the next residential street, Mariposa, I made a right and found myself on a rather charming block.

It had big trees and an honest mix of restored and dilapidated homes. Also, it's situated on a hill, so the views are nice. My phone camera was not up to the task of capturing them, though.
I turned right on Oakwood and made my way to the Beverly Hot Springs, which uses the same mineral waters that used to feed the Bimini Baths on my block. In typical Korean spa fashion, one entered through the parking lot. There was a little pedestrian gate into the lot, but it was totally blocked by the driveway gate that had been left open.

Hmmph. It was too hot for a spa day, so I plunged back into the neighborhood instead.
In total I walked for about two hours and saw lots of new blocks.
I had to write a lot recently about the different experiences of space we have if we bike instead of drive, but something I tend to gloss over is the difference between walking and biking.
For me the biggest difference is paying attention to other road users when I'm biking and paying attention to houses when I'm walking. I tend to bike AS FAST AS POSSIBLE, whereas when I walk I like to meander. It has a lot to do with the prevailing style of interacting on roads, too. In LA it's all ZOOM-SWERVE-SLAM BRAKES.
Meanwhile the neighborhoods beckon.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Embodying Bike Love: The Story of My Sharrow Tattoo

[I wrote this for the LA Eco-Village Blog. Writing in the summertime seems less appealing than drinking white beer and staring at walls of sound, so I'm kind of slacking on the composition front at this time]

I’m an ecovillager who is studying to get a PhD in cultural anthropology, and my dissertation project revolves around biking in LA. I’m going to spend a lot of time in the next year talking to people and writing about the way our bodies become engaged with our city differently through bicycling than they do through driving or walking.
Since I think of bicyclists as “body-city-machines,” I started wondering about the boundaries between our bodies, our bikes, and our streets. How do they get stirred up as we ride? As an experiment, I decided to do some active boundary blurring and get a sharrow tattoo.
As many cyclists know, “sharrows” are share-the-road-arrows or, as they are listed officially in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), shared lane markings. They get painted onto roadways to remind cyclists and drivers that the safest place to bike is in the middle of the lane, not hugging parked cars. I really like the design of the sharrow, with its simply bicycle outline and two chevrons indicating forward motion. So a few weeks ago I visited New Rose Tattoo in Portland and consulted with Mikal Gilmore, who had just finished tattooing a friend.
My friend Kristen Cross documented the process for me.

Mikal developed this stencil by just going outside of her house and looking at the street, since Portland had just painted a whole bunch of bright, shiny new sharrows on many bike routes. The tattoo design differs a bit from the MUTCD regulation sharrow:

Let’s hope I don’t get fined for installing nonstandard signage. Not only does the symbol differ slightly, my tattoo is not retroreflectorized.

I felt like getting a sharrow tattoo would not only be a fun way to display my interest in transforming how we move in the United States, but also be a play on infrastructure.

It hurt.

It’s exciting to run around with this guy on my leg, especially since the City of LA just started painting their own sharrows due to the hard work of the LA County Bike Coalition. It also makes me feel like my commitment to bikes is something inalienable, something embodied.
Coming soon: a picture of the sharrow tattoo riding over one of LA’s new official sharrows.

Friday, June 25, 2010

(Mystery) Train (In Vain)

I just spent another 30 hours on the Coast Starlight from LA to Portland, and it was one of my nicest train rides.

Central California, near the coast, brings to mind other regions. It reminds me of the fields of Michigan Bobby and I biked through last summer. Of course, here we don't have that soaking humidity, but through my train window every landscape has the same chilly aridity.

The sloping hills covered in tall grass also worked nicely as a setting for reading My Àntonia, Willa Cather's story about the struggles of immigrant farmers in Nebraska. Her narrator can never break free from the land of red grass hills and roads marked by sunflowers, or from loving the strong, vibrant daughters of the farms. Like Cather herself, he finds himself returning again and again to appreciate the abiding trust and joy of humanity summed up in Àntonia. What a satisfying book to read in one sitting!

Cather's stories gave me one of my earliest impetuses to chase some vision of American summer around the country on trains. It is fitting, then, that I should have slipped My Àntonia into my trusty yellow backpack alongside Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine as I left yesterday morning on my third summer quest to find American summer and revel in it. One thing I've learned: it can be found close to the ground where the growing things live, not on sale at Wal-Mart.

The third party in my set of train books has turned somewhat blah. I visited Hearst Castle recently with an itinerant gang of flappers and rogues, and picked up a Marion Davies memoir there. As publisher William Randolph Hearst's companion for many years, Davies acted out his fantasies of her as screen goddess to much critical scorn. The Hollywood set adored their parties, though. The Times We Had does not disappoint in pictures, to be sure; they're crammed in all over the place. It's just that Davies never really spills any beans. She never says an unkind word about the antiquities-obsessed father of five sons who fell for her when she was a Ziegfeld girl at age 16 (Hearst's age: 58).

I was hoping for a sharper account, a gore fest like Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Even Gloria Swanson, a contemporary of Davies', gives all kinds of juicy details about her affair with Joseph P. Kennedy in her own autobiography. That's what I like when reading about old Hollywood: stories about bachannalian indulgence, about attractive, charming people giving in to their basest desires, and staying pure and good in the American eye at the same time. Davies' book talks more about meeting European royalty (snooze) than about booze and criminal charges.

Back to my idyllic train ride: I woke up this morning in Dunsmuir, one of my favorite mountain towns, and then we chugged along on schedule to Portland. I slapped my pedals back on my bike, hooked on my panniers, and rode to SE.

An Angeleno at Sunday Streets

(I wrote this post for the CicLAvia blog. I'm recycling it.)
Last Sunday, June 20, I stepped out of the Mission/ 24th St BART station with a friend, and immediately got swept into a steady stream of people. People on bikes, people walking, little kids biking, and one person in a pink gorilla suit. It was lovely. A man and a piano rode past us. There were lots of pretty girls and boys on pretty bikes.
For pictures of the event and a route map, see the Sunday Streets website.
We walked east on 24th Street, passing between rows of ficus trees and hearing music from various sources (here's a good visualization). There were lots of cafés that seemed to be enjoying an increase in patrons. One café owner had various jugos set up on the street and was calling out his wares to passersby. We stopped for a melon (mmmm! delicious cantaloupe juice), and I asked him how business was. He flashed a wad of cash in response.
Lots of families walked and biked past us. I talked to a few volunteers about practical things like bathrooms, and they directed me to an info booth on Harrison. Nearing the end of the route on 24th, we backtracked and turned south on Harrison. This street had far fewer people on it, since there were only houses and no businesses to attract foot traffic.
At the info booth, we met the Sunday Streets volunteer coordinator, Emma. She told me that they had 160 volunteers working for them that day, helping police officers direct traffic at intersections, riding around and assisting people as needed, and helping with set up and clean up. One volunteer at the booth said we’d come for an especially good event, what with the perfect weather and the neighborhood full of cyclists.
The Mission District in San Francisco shares a few characteristics with the areas LA’s CicLAvia will pass through: old housing stock, low income residents, an influx of new, sustainability-oriented residents, and Latino-owned businesses. We have wider streets, though, so there’d better be even more mobile musical instruments and families at ours!
Having sufficiently used the info booth, we returned to 24th Street and walked west to Valencia. On the way there we passed multiple musical performances, a group of girls dancing around a picnic table in the street, and had to make our way through big crowds. Valencia didn’t have as much traffic, probably because we made it there at the tail end of the event.
At 3 pm, a city employee drove down the route announcing that, “Sunday Streets is over. Please move to the sidewalk.” Immediately cars filled the lanes. Sigh. Valencia has bikes lanes, though, so plenty of bicyclists continued to flow along the street as we walked.
All in all, I didn’t expect such a palpable feeling of goodwill. It hit me as soon as we hit 24th Street, and stayed with me for the rest of the day. So many happy faces, so many people enjoying the street. How will Portland’s Sunday Parkways compare?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

S is for Space

Ray Bradbury is a cornball and a half. It's taken me a long time to accept that, because I love his books and stories so much that I wanted to believe that they transcended pulp. Humph, I would think, why must this work be relegated to the "Young Adult" section in the library? Really they're simple little stories, and when Bradbury tries to get too literary things do not go as well, in my opinion. It is his nostalgic paranoia I like best.

The Bradbury storyland most familiar to me blends a future where space travel seems commonplace with the summer pleasures of small town Illinois in the 1920s. Either the two worlds clash and the innocence of Bradbury's own childhood setting is destroyed, or what seemed like an unquestionably better modern life gets overthrown by the loveliness of Americana.

The nostalgic vision is not patriotic or anything, it's more about the senses engaged by the sights, smells, and tastes of small town life. And there's such a sense of individual fun that it manages to avoid the cheap suburban fantasy I associate with Thomas Kinkade paintings. In Bradbury's writing little boys read adventure stories, or freak out over cheap horror movies, then run home through quiet neighborhoods to porches crammed with swings and warm kitchens full of ice cream.

This is what is right with the world, he argues over and over; the simple facts of crickets and trolleys and nighttime walks. Bradbury's characters may travel to Mars and find this re-created, or try to re-create it only to find themselves consumed by a landscape beyond their ken. Suspicions gradually creep over his characters, who start to notice things skewing oddly. At first they or their companions dismiss these growing certainties that something is not right, but eventually they are overwhelmed by some alien force that sees them as a threat.

The paranoia tinging Ray Bradbury's stories guards against a world in which activities like reading books and walking through cities become criminal. He's a fierce advocate of libraries and bookstores, and proudly walks in Los Angeles. I couldn't admire this silly inventor more. Long before I thought of myself as a transportation activist his stories made me think about my own walks through San Juan Capistrano at night, with blooming flowers and swooping birds. Even though I was a little brown girl, a kid straddling racist divisions in a suburb built incongruously around one of the oldest European settlements in California, I knew just exactly what he meant.

Now when I revisit my favorite stories I can see that there is a mobility thread running through many of them. I just indulged in re-reading S is for Space, a collection of Bradbury stories that contains my very favorite, "Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed." I came across several stories that take place in future cities. One, "The Pedestrian," actually ends with the character who dares to walk through his neighborhood at night getting arrested by a police drone.

In a world where private living and private moving are the norm, those of us who like to stay outside our cars become suspects. This is what I hear Bradbury warning against: we must leave our landscapes open, lest we shut out the very magic that sustains our creative life.

He found mystery and surprise in the old fashioned, the forgotten. As a feminist and critical analyst of popular culture I've trained myself to question nostalgia, as it empinkens past places that weren't nearly so nice as they seem now. With mobility it's different, though. Riding a bike and walking can never be merely nostalgic, because they take you through a living landscape of other human beings who demand recognition as your present fellows. That is, as long as there are others out there, or else you'd just be walking alone. And then there wouldn't be anyone to help you when the police drone shows up...

Soon I'll be able to put away school and read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. It's never failed to bring me summertime yet.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sharing the Road Goes Both Ways

As part of my cultural anthropology dissertation project on bicycling in Los Angeles, I've been thinking more and more recently about communication between different kinds of road users. How do bicyclists indicate their plans for the road immediately ahead to drivers, pedestrians, and other cyclists? Well, for starters, a lot of them just don't.

I have things like this happen quite often: I pull up to a signal, waiting in a traffic lane for the light to change so I can proceed, and a bicyclist rides past me through the intersection. Or I'm pulling up to a four-way stop in a neighborhood, and an oncoming driver who got to the intersection a wee bit before me is signaling a left turn across my path. I slow down and balance myself to let the driver pass quickly so I don't have to stop fully, but another bicyclist rides past me into the intersection. The driver stops, and at this point I've put my foot on the ground, and the driver waits for me to get going again before turning.

Does it annoy me that my efforts to share the road as a bicyclist get undermined by people who ride without paying attention to anyone around them? Oh boy does it ever. Do I also think that there's nothing I can really do about it? Yeah.

I think one of the biggest barriers to bicycling getting taken seriously as a mode of transport by drivers at large is that so many people ride bikes without knowing (or caring) about their rights and responsibilities as road users. Where are new cyclists supposed to learn about this stuff anyway? 14 year old boys in my neighborhood who decide to save up and customize a fixie probably aren't reading educational pamphlets about safe riding. And most schools do not offer bike education. Do they even offer driver's education anymore?

I wonder if the cyclists who don't follow traffic laws or use hand signals think that they are rebels for riding bikes in LA. I wonder if they feel that they have the right to ride however they feel, since drivers are their natural enemies anyway.

For me riding a bike means making a statement about community. Riding a bike does more to humanize my city than driving does, what with all its isolation and pollution. When I ride my bike, I pay attention to the ladies crossing the street in front of me with their grocery carts, I hear the silly music coming out of open car windows, I see the man waiting patiently for the cars to clear so he can cross the street mid-block. Biking makes me feel like I'm part of the landscape I'm riding through. So when people bike without respecting their surroundings, it looks more to me like the antisocial statement of driving than the social statement of biking.

There's definitely a fine line between respecting other people and being cowed by aggressive drivers, and I don't think cyclists should stand for intimidation from every 3,000 pound smoke belcher that wants to run us off the road. Maybe my fantasy about people respecting each others' rights to travel by making eye contact, using hand signals or blinkers, and even just talking when they're right next to each other must wait for some future where everyone's right to the road has been equalized through some magic formula.

In the meantime, I'm going to continue to wait for the light to turn green, 14 year olds on customized fixies be damned.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Whats up with Bike Share?

Post by Bobby Gadda

In transportation circles, bike share programs are a hot idea for cities these days, almost up there with hosting ciclovias. Several US cities have installed bike share programs modeled after the Velib program in Paris, France. I happened to find myself in Denver for a business trip this week, where the largest US bike share program was installed last month. It's called Denver B-Cycle, and the bikes are still new and shiny:

The way it works is you buy a membership (a 24 hour period is 5 bucks) that allows you to check out a bike. If you park the bike again within 30 minutes, the ride is free, but if you go over that they charge you a couple of bucks. There are quite a few stations scattered around the downtown area and into some of the neighborhoods to the southeast. The idea is to encourage quick trips between stations and keep the turnover rate pretty high. This makes it pretty cheap if you stay under the 30 minutes. It also gives a kind of unpleasant manic fervor to your ride, as once you hit 15 minutes you have to start thinking about parking it in time.

I'll admit, Adonia and I are both bike share skeptics. I tend to think that lack of bikes isn't really much of an obstacle to increasing bicycle ridership - there are over a billion bikes in the world, twice the number of cars. Most people have a bike stuck in their garage or rusting on their balcony. Bikes are cheap, lack of them is not really the problem. Car share makes more sense, as cars are very expensive, and not having to make a big financial investment in owning a car allows people to see the benefits of a car-light lifestyle. Bike share seems like a hot idea just because it is a fancy technological solution to the bike "problem". Have fancy machines on the street to rent bikes automatically! Then people will ride bikes!

So, when I was given the opportunity to go to Denver, I decided to approach it with an open mind and see if I liked actually using it. As a business traveler, I happened to fit exactly one of their target demographics, the "Mile High Visitor" (Click on the "click for examples" button). I was staying in a hotel downtown that had a B-Cycle station right next to it.

Getting a membership was pretty easy - just swipe your credit card and enter your phone number. One quibble here is that the touchscreen was pretty low contrast and required a LOT of pressure to register your presses, so it ends up taking 30 seconds to punch in your phone number. Then all you do is enter the number of the bike you want and pull it out.

The bike itself is very nice, a Trek with a smooth shifting internal three speed hub, and a front hub dynamo that automatically powers front and rear lights. To get going all you need to do is adjust the seat, which has handy quick release with an extra large lever. As I am used to riding zippy road bikes, these bikes seem really heavy and rather ponderous to ride. The sturdy front basket is handy, though, and in a pinch can double as aero bars:

The bikes are also equipped with a lock attached to the front basket, which perplexed me at first, because I couldn't find the key. There were no instructions about how to use the lock. After a good half hour, I figured out that when you lock the bike, you turn a knob which pops out, that has the key built in to it. Having a little diagram of how this works (even just on the website!) would definitely be helpful for B-cycle newbies. The bike is also equipped with the most underwhelming bell I've ever encountered, really just not loud enough, emitting barely a "ping". On one bike the chintzy dinger had already broken off. Try again, Trek!

I used the bikes to explore the city quite a bit. It is convenient to be able to park the bike at a station and not worry about it. This allows you to bike to one destination, walk somewhere else, and pick up another bike later. This means that, unlike with a personal bike, you don't have to walk back to where your bike is locked up. This can make exploring by bike more flexible, and a benefit to bike share that hadn't occurred to me. I can also see it being handy if you live or work downtown for running errands - you could put quite a bit of junk in that basket. The annual membership is only $62, which seems ridiculously cheap to me. I would definitely buy one if I lived in Denver.

So, it sounds like I'm converted, right? Well, maybe. Since the system is so new, it remains to be seen whether it will suffer the same fate of the Parisian system, which lost 80% of its initial stock of bikes to theft and vandalism. Of course, Denver doesn't have the problem of gangs of immigrant youths burning cars, who apparently moved on to vandalizing the Velib bikes as a symbol of the bohemian elite. It will take continued investment to keep the bikes in working order, however.

B-Cycle is a collaboration between Trek, a health insurance company and an advertising company. I'm not sure what their plans are to "monetize" this system. Denver B-Cycle rounded up quite an impressive roster of sponsors and partners, such as Kaiser Permanente. The question is whether bike share is a better investment than building more bike paths, lanes, and sharrows, hosting civlovias, or even subsidizing private bike ownership. I suppose that bike share is a little more enticing to sponsors as there is something permanent they can put their name on.

B-Cycle has a "Who wants it more?" section of their site, encouraging people to vote for their city to be the next B-Cycle implementation. LA has a handful of votes for some neighborhoods. Sometimes I hear bike enthusiasts in LA advocating for bike share as the "next big thing" for bikes here. It's my opinion that we have to get more bike infrastructure on the ground in LA before bike share makes sense. Denver has obviously done quite a bit of work to reclaim their downtown and surrounding neighborhoods for peds and cyclists. Drivers are fairly respectful. I fear that installing this in LA right now would not be a big success because people are so fearful of traffic.

Overall though, I have to admit that bike share is a good idea for cities that already have a decent amount of bike infrastructure, if the funding and maintenance can be worked out. Just walking around I overheard a lot of people talking about it and the bike stations attracted a lot of attention. I did feel like kind of a dork on the bike, but after a while I enjoyed playing the part of the clueless tourist on the bright red B-Cycle. Watch out!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

OMG, I have to slow down while driving during rush hour in the middle of a crowded city? Blame the bicyclist! Honk honk honk.

View Lame Stretch of Glendale in a larger map

Usually I ride the Red Line home from Union Station in the afternoon. Sometimes, though, getting off the Metrolink and feeling the warm air and bright sunshine, I'm less inclined to descend into the tunnel and wait for the train to carry me home. I stand on the platform for a minute, debating between the fear and harassment inevitable when biking in LA during rush hour, and the boredom of sitting down below on a train full of tired folks.

When I bike home, I think of myself conquering my route in little stages. Stage 1: Union Station to Los Angeles Street, passing alongside Placita Olvera and the civic center. Stage 2: turning right onto Second, passing through the famous tiled, echo-filled tunnel (how do people manage to sleep in there? Ah yes, necessity). Stage 3: riding along Glendale under the 101 and turning left onto Beverly. Stage 4: Climbing up Beverly to about Westlake. Stage 5: zooming down Beverly to Commonwealth, avoiding the frequent ruts in the road. Stage 6: Turning onto 1st, slowly climbing the hill and heading home.

Although drivers will do menacing things like accelerate and swerve around me at any point on the route, it's especially bad during Stage 3. I always expect people to honk at me in the tunnel, just cause that would be especially loud and startling, but the honking doesn't start until Glendale. As a vehicular cyclist, I ride in the middle of the right hand lane, avoiding the broken glass drunk drivers' crashes have left along the gutter. This infuriates strangers on a regular basis. How dare I cause them to drive at a slightly slower pace? And outside of a car too?? Honk! The engine roars as the driver self-righteously pulls around me, perhaps clearing up any ambiguities that might remain by yelling at me as s/he passes by.

Different people do this in the same place every time I ride this way. I know it is near a 101 off ramp, but where do people get off menacing bicyclists like this? How do people justify such hideous behavior? Really? You need to honk your horn loudly in the naked ears of someone busy navigating shitty roads as though you have some kind of prior right to the street?

You don't. Bicyclists are SUPPOSED TO RIDE IN THE ROADWAY. On this particular stretch of road, there are two lanes in each direction, so it's not like I'm comically blocking a huge line of honkers. I think what usually happens is someone a few cars back gets frustrated, bursts a honk, swerves around the car behind me, and then car behind me gets frustrated too cause not only are they behind me (a worthless, carless piece of trash) but now they're getting honks.

Driving makes other road users into enemies, blockages in what's supposed to be your personal artery of smooth sailing. How have we gotten our heads so far up our asses that it's socially acceptable for people to treat each other like this? I mean, it's beyond socially acceptable, I get looked down on by a lot of people I meet in LA because I choose not to drive. It is socially expected that you get into a car every day.

Not all motorists menace bicyclists, but the jerks sure make me remember that driving is a selfish waste of resources that millions in this region justify every morning. And it's so absolutely normal to drive that I'm sure most people who are witnessing the horrific destruction caused by oil drilling in the Gulf are not making the connection to their gas tanks. Or, if they are, feel helpless to change their commutes. Well, the thing is, we're all in this thing together, so the sooner we start treating each other like human beings, the better it will be for all of us.

And those of you who see the rest of us as mere barriers to your all-important journey, why don't you go build your own roads somewhere else? Cause, you know, those ones outside? The ones you drive on everyday? They belong to us.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bicycling as a Civil Right

It's common for bicyclists to complain about being treated like second class citizens. We are expected to get out of the way so that motorists can pass us; we get treated like barriers to speed, not humans. I don't think anyone who has not been shouted or honked at while riding a bicycle can fully grasp the visceral combination of fear, anxiety, adrenaline, and anger that swells up in our bellies during these moments. And those of us who have been killed by drivers can't speak up at all.

Yet: second class citizens? I've been thinking for a while about bicycling as a civil right, and comparisons have been made (mostly unfavorably) between the bike movement and the civil rights movement. It seems that the issue here is race: white people should not be able to claim that their civil rights are being violated, or that their struggles warrant comparison to the historic, heroic struggles of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Oh, but wait, not all bicyclists are white.

A lot of people bike because they're too poor to drive. Guess what color they are? Guess who gets killed while biking? Does it make it more okay to talk about bicycling and carfree transportation in general as a civil right when you bring brown people into the movement? It seems like it, since the Bus Riders Union has enjoyed years of full support from academics and liberals for their fight to improve bus service for the majority-non white bus riders of Los Angeles.

So if the bike movement gets some brown people on board, and pushes them out in front of the cameras, would that make it seem more okay to call the bike movement a struggle for a basic human right?

That's bullshit. The fact that our country's roads and laws make it easier for cars to pollute our natural and human environment than for our bodies to travel safely through our cities is unfair. It is a violation of the basic human right to move freely. I don't care what color bodies we're talking about, and you'd better take off your damn blinders if you're in Southern California and you think white people are the only ones biking.

If you're a white person, maybe riding a bike gives you your first experience of being treated like a worthless individual. I wouldn't know; I'm not white. Is it a bad thing for people who we assume benefit from all kinds of unquestioned privilege to compare their struggle as cyclists to the struggle for equal rights for people of color? Doesn't it just highlight how we are all human, and we all have rights that can, unfortunately, be violated by systems of power?

Bicycling should be a right for ALL people, regardless of race. The symbolic power of car ownership as a marker of status means that the people who are working the hardest to show that they're not trapped by poverty do not want to ride bikes. Let's address this issue instead of claiming that people who are risking their lives to change the dynamics of our streets do not deserve to be associated with the civil rights movement.

Anyone who thinks that the color of their skin protects them from being involved in the disastrous effects of our society's addiction to driving needs to shake off the stupor from all those sexy car ads and pay attention to the world around us.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Charming City by the Sea/ Just Ignore the Homeless People

San Diego sits on a bay and looks more like San Francisco than LA. It is chock full of simulacra. A simulacrum, which I learned about through reading the wacky French theorist Jean Baudrillard, questions the reality of authentic life in that it exists as a reference to something that isn't there. I've found it tremendously useful to describe the silliness of Orange County, which brims over with themed subdivisions that use cheap stucco detailing to refer to Tuscany, Spain, whatever.

Recently I've learned about the existence of enchantment engineering, a concept urban planners use to trick you into thinking you're having a good time. Because apparently you can't actually enjoy your city, you just have to trick yourself into thinking you enjoy it. Weird stuff, especially for someone like me who works hard to unveil the interconnections of all aspects of my life.

Case in point: Old Town San Diego, a state historic park, features many old adobes facing each other across a central plaza. It's got all kinds of old timey stuff you can look at, like wagons and reconstructed interiors. The most fascinating spot, though, is the edge of the parking lot behind the adobes. People sit in traffic to find parking in dirt lots, and then they leave the everyday world to enter the realm of Old West fantasy.

If you ride a bike like I do, the boundaries between real and fake life get blurry. I use my body to propel myself through space, rather than traveling in a climate-controlled capsule from one pleasure zone to another. So when I get somewhere and need to lock up my bike, I notice that tons of space has been given over to SUVs, and that people are streaming from the very modern, congested parking lot into the quaint space of the park just a few yards away. I find it difficult to ignore the harsh juxtaposition of driving and freeway life with public spaces filled with people.

In downtown San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, clubby club club zone 3000, ladies in micro minis and gentlemen bathed in aftershave manage to find each other sexy despite the presence of many homeless folks seeking change. Again, enchantment engineering: you have to be able to overlook the real conditions of a space; forget addressing the social problems at hand, the point is to have a good time.

When I say that San Diego is full of simulacra what I mean is that there seem to be nothing but overlapping themed spaces, where you can sit and sip your coffee while your status dog contains its desire to run around, right next to the SUV you drove there in, or down the block from the new glass and steel loft you live in, which replaced an old Victorian building infested with poor people. You can take pictures of your children in front of blooming flowers and Spanish arcades in Balboa Park, keeping this guy out of sight:

He was one of the only bicyclists I saw in San Diego who did not feel the need to be decked out in clothes clearly marked "exercise."

It seems that few people bike in San Diego, despite its lovely climate. Maybe it's because of the hills that sit under the city. People who don't bike seem to think that it's a serious undertaking, like you gotta wear lycra and you're going to sweat so hard you'll need a shower immediately afterward. That's actually not true. If you're going to ride a few miles to get somewhere, you can take it easy and enjoy yourself. Biking requires less energy than running, and there's this momentum thing that keeps you going with little ongoing effort (one big reason bicyclists tend to run stop signs; stopping and re-starting takes a lot more energy on a bike than it does when you're just lifting your foot from one pedal to the other in a car).

Driving everywhere has a really negative impact on public life. It creates interstitial zones inhabited only by the people who can't afford to drive, and in San Diego it has led to a city totally split by the 5 freeway. Its on and off ramps curl around buildings and interrupt streets. And what does an official bike route look like in San Diego?

It looks like an eight lane highway, because it is one. An officially signed bike route along a high speed, eight lane highway. In a big city. Shameful. That bike infrastructure gives the city some kind of credit toward more federal funding, I'm pretty sure, and it's f-ed up that they can claim that this is a useful bike facility. Way to make biking abnormal, unsafe, and undesirable, San Diego.

More people should bike in San Diego. It's not hard, it's a good way to make a statement against oil, and, coming at you out of left field, Jesus would do it if he were alive today. He certainly wouldn't be driving a monster truck home to his subdivision in the outermost burbs where the largest LCD flatscreen awaited him, having spent the day in a simulated pleasure zone next to the freeway.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Herky Jerky Dance of the Scholar-Activist

I'm currently reading, writing, and avoiding my way through the most intense period of my PhD program. In June I will spend a few hours convincing a panel of experts, selected by me, that I am sufficiently familiar with the discipline of sociocultural anthropology to embark on the dissertation project I have designed. This is called the oral examination. I must prepare for this performance by researching four topics relevant both to my project and to the discipline, and writing bibliographic essays describing my knowledge.

My project challenges the traditional separation of university and field site because I have merged the two. Instead of traveling thousands of miles once a year to visit the field, I travel dozens of miles four times a week to visit the university. This act of situating myself between the field as an activist and the university as a scholar sometimes works better on paper than in real life.

To me spending long weeks alone, grappling with text and creating new forms of it, seems selfish. It certainly gets lonely. Sometimes my ability to move fluidly from the private, monastic world of my textual research to the human world of my home and field site gets jammed, and I end up feeling like a space creature clinging to nonsense in an impenetrable enclosure.

This retreat from the space of everyday life to one of reflection has been something I wished to avoid, so I came up with a project grounded in bike activism. And right now the bike activist in me would be better used writing grants to fund the ridiculously awesome bike cooperative City of Lights/ Ciudad de Luces has started at a day laborer center downtown.

Yet I can't do it all! I can't simultaneously devote myself to moving toward becoming a PhD candidate and do substantive work on the activist project that forms an important part of my dissertation research.

A while ago I figured out that many academics would like to be more involved in politics and public opinion, but they get swamped with the institutional requirements of working as professors in the United States. Committees, publishing, mentoring undergrads and grads, having families (ha!); only a few manage to secure their livelihoods and then go the extra mile to frame their work for wider audiences. We sit on the sidelines and grumble at what passes for knowledge disseminated through national media outlets, and that's about all we have time for.

I've been fortunate enough to find myself in a doctoral program that not only pushes me to expand academia beyond the Ivory Tower, but also offers me excellent examples of people doing this work, like my adviser, Dr. Michael Montoya, who strives to use anthropological knowledge to impact public health debates and practices.

But when push comes to shove, if I want to be an academic, I will have to go through these periods of intense separation from the everyday world. A PhD still has some value to it, even in this era of crowdsourcing and near total surrender to conspicuous consumption. Right?