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.