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.