Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Life and Place in Southern California

I was standing on the platform at San Juan Capistrano station this morning, waiting for a Metrolink train to carry me to school. I've been feeling low on this trip, reading about the unforeseeable changes we've set into motion on our planet through our unconcern over resource consumption, and meanwhile seeing people drive alone in trucks with monster tires and four door cabs. I've pumped $51 into my mom's car's gas tank, and I've had the goods I've purchased shoved into enough bags to create my own little corner in the plastic sea. Just before the train arrived, a man rode up to the platform on a bicycle. That made me feel a little more hopeful.

View of the San Bernardino Mountains from the train.
Riding the train north from San Juan, I always take a seat on the right side because if there's not too much smog I can see the spread of the San Bernardino Mountains to the east. I think about the grape ranch my great grandparents established in the foothills of that range, where they sold under the label Our Girl and put a picture of my grandmother on the crates. That is, they did until my great grandfather Otto Meyer died in a car crash in 1929, leaving a widow and two small children to weather the Great Depression on their own.

Otto Meyer and his little girl, Kathryn Holmes, who became my grandma.
I think about the picture I've seen of my great grandmother's father, Ernest Everett, at work driving a streetcar in San Bernardino in the early 1900s. I think about my great grandmother herself, Vera Frances Cassen, who remarried and with her bricklayer husband built a brick cottage in Corona Del Mar in the 1940s. My mother has told me about the trips Grandma and Ben, as she knew them, would take her on to then-remote brickyards, which today would be easily accessible from the interstate and the suburbs that branch off of it. Great Grandma knew the names of all the plant life. She was my living link to this past, staying with us until she reached 101 years in 1996. Great Grandma kept a tidy garden and cooked delicious meals for her extensive brood late into her 90s.

My Great Grandma on the right, next to a tree her second husband Ben Cassen cultivated. Walt Disney purchased the tree and brought it to his new theme park, seen here in 1962.
I think about my mother's other grandfather, the Norwegian Lars Holm who emigrated to New York as a little boy in the nineteenth century and became the American Lawrence Holmes. He had a carob ranch in Riverside County and, as an inventor, devised a unique system of dams to irrigate his land. Later he lived in Los Angeles, after the Metropolitan Water District had seized his land and put it under a reservoir, Lake Mathews. His unsuccessful lawsuit to regain control of the land left him penniless, and the family was supported by his wife, Gertrude, a voice coach to the stars.

Even though nobody in my family continued to farm after my grandmother's brother tried and failed to revive the Our Girl grapes land, I grew up with a distinct sense that burying this land under houses and water was suffocating something. I felt sorry for the coyotes I heard yipping in anticipation of the train coming into our valley, and hoped they would feast on the cats of the wealthy people who bought the readymade mansions encroaching on their territory. When I was a kid, every time we drove out the Ortega Highway to hike in the Cleveland National Forest, we saw houses reaching further and further into the wilderness.

I've been to their churches, their jumbotronic stadia with where they worship some charismatic leader standing acres away from their nosebleed seats, who sanctions their confusion of greed with prosperity, of fear with humility. I saw a car yesterday that was the size of a small bus, and on the back were not one, not two, but three of those metal fish that people display to show their solidarity with Jesus. Secured in a cocoon made of consumer waste and held together by the self-serving scripture falling from their false idols' mouths, they rot in front of their plasma screens, watching the Real Housewives of Orange County they wish they could be.

Or not, I can't speak for others. But I see the effects of their lifestyle in the whistling emptiness of sidewalks and bike lanes next to their massive SUVs. I see the way people drive on neighborhood streets like they are on the freeway, weaving between cars that dare to obey the speed limit. Nevermind the children playing feet away from their squealing tires. There is an utter selfishness expressed in this culture of closed capsule travel, where any undesired interaction can be avoided. Being alone is somehow the prize; or being together, but only with those so like oneself that you'd think there'd been a downpour of frosted tips and status handbags.

What will happen if they don't wake up? In a place where community centers such as churches breed as much hate as the freeways where people rev their customized engines at each other, what future can there be but destruction? Will it come to the battle to the death over dwindling resources that some people seem to desire as confirmation of their belief that humans are selfish beyond all else? I wish all these intruders would leave, leave the land to the coyotes and the jackrabbits and the cougars they shoot for attacking people out of desperate hunger. I wish they would give up their overmortgaged stucco castles and return to whatever place they came from. But they're not going to do that. They have their own relationships with these places, as different from my own as they may be. And my family stole land from others who lived here before them. There are many different places struggling to occupy the same spaces. This is human history.

Just after I started thinking of myself as “carfree” in 2008, I attended the Toward Carfree Cities Conference in Portland. At one panel about some sustainable transportation issue or other, what really stuck with me was what somebody said during the Q&A. With a calm, unironic face, this person said that workers simply need to move closer to their jobs. This will reduce their commute distances and oil dependency. Ha, I thought, you're gonna make a lot of friends with a stance like that! People form ties to the places where they live, and the idea that they can just pick up and move doesn't seem to take this into account.

I have no claim to this land, besides the graves of Meyers that fill up a corner of the Mountain View Cemetery in San Bernardino, and the grave of my grandmother sitting on a hill facing the sea at Pacific View Cemetery in Corona Del Mar. Other family graves lie on land we no longer own, some of which has been developed into housing subdivisions. Who knows what those sleeping pioneers would think about their little half Mexican descendant, ranting and raving about bicycles. I wish I could just go away and ignore Southern California, and hope like so many spiteful others that it would wash away into the sea. But I can't give it up for lost, despite the drive I see throughout this basin to burn through all resources with no concern for tomorrow. Every time I return it smells like home, it feels like home. This enormous basin between the mountains and the sea causes some chamber within me to resonate with joy, critical as I am of the region's dominant lifestyle that sees no contradiction between a temperate climate and constant entombment in cars.

When I was biking to the Tustin train station on Monday, I had to leave the wide bike lane on Harvard Avenue in Irvine because a landscaping truck was parked in it. Up ahead, I could see a Latino worker, walking slowly down the bike lane. As I got closer, I realized he was spraying weed killer onto small plants that had sprouted in the crack between the roadway and the gutter. I wondered if those plants would be there without the sprinklers used to keep the lawn next to the road green. All of these efforts to create places where life is totally controlled. To what end?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Moving from Subaltern to Sustainable Transportation

Yesterday this 2011 post from Thought Catalog about tips for riding transit in LA, by a woman who is a longtime bus rider, made the rounds in my corner of the internet. As I have noted lots of times on this blog, most recently here, I'm not a fan of the notion that using transit in LA is for disgusting losers, so I appreciate finding positive writing on the subject. At the same time, it is an undeniable fact that for many years our culture, and the public policy our cultural beliefs shape, has treated transit users like worthless criminals who don't deserve quality service. Advocates like me are trying to transform how Americans think of riding transit, walking, and biking, but that doesn't mean we can erase that history.

Down in the responses, I found this comment by a guest user: 
[Y]our perspective of L.A. buses may be valid but it's a very privileged point of view. youre white.. you got your ipad and charmed sense of self. My family didnt have a car for my entire childhood and being able to drive instilled a sense of pride for me and my family. It sounds superficial, but when you grow  up in a working-class, immigrant household, being in charge of you and your family's mobility means something. My parents are undocumented but I was there anchor baby. I grew up in L.A. and almost all my friends grew up taking the bus.. it was always shitty.. you were not growing up here in the 90's, buses were dangerous back then. Before you go on thinking you know everything about L.A. and its people.. take a step back from your ipad and learn to be more sensitive to the fact that some people on that bus want nothing more than to be the "trapped" people with a car.   
Rarely do I see so explicit a condemnation of privileged people using sustainable transportation. I'm not a mind reader, so I don't know this poster's motivations. But to me, this comment illustrates a tension I have witnessed many times, explicitly or implicitly, as I've studied bicycling in U.S. cities. It's the reason I stopped riding the bus as soon as I could when I got my driver's license at 17. When you've been the person standing at the bus stop for hours while people drive by in their cars, when you've had someone try to rob you when you got off the train, when you've been riding on the same bus as someone who smelled so bad that another stranger started yelling about it, when you're someone whose skin color or accent or clothing means you're going to be judged by strangers, you know the nasty truth about our disinvestment in public spaces and transportation in the U.S. Riding buses for many years has been a punishment for those in poverty, a further reminder that if you don't make much money, you don't deserve a good quality of life. That's something that stays out of the picture in a lot of sustainable transportation marketing.

The new, positive image of bicycling and public transportation at Union Station in Los Angeles
In the Thought Catalog piece, the writer seemed to be trying to frame riding transit as a rational choice; driving in LA is very stressful, so it makes sense to use the extensive network of buses and trains. I know a lot of people who use this kind of justification for going carfree. I wonder if this only strengthens the image of sustainable transportation as a symbol of privilege. So what am I saying, that everyone should drive because some people couldn't afford to for a long time and that reinforced their social marginalization? Not at all! Driving may be a status symbol, but that road leads off a cliff.

Rather, I think that robust sustainable transportation promotion projects should acknowledge the fact that our transportation systems and histories reflect our social inequalities. Trying to leapfrog over that legacy might be interpreted as just another attempt to impose an outsider's definition on someone's reality. The bus isn't scary, it's easy to use! Biking isn't a transport mode of last resort, it's a great way to exercise! To me, ecological sustainability means recognizing our interdependence. That means we need to build new definitions of sustainable transportation together.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Finding Inspiration for Bike Justice in the Words of Dr. King

January has been a month of academic writing deadlines for me. Fortunately, I was invited to take a break from that kind of work and consider how the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy relates to bicycle advocacy. You can read the piece on the Bicycle Alliance of Washington's blog.
Now back to that academic writing...

Monday, January 7, 2013

Concern Trolling and Bike Helmets

Today I was reading details on a local news blog about an incident where a motorist struck a bicyclist not far from my home, when I saw a comment likening wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle to wearing a seatbelt while riding in a car. So I got to thinking, what do seatbelts do? Seatbelts are a taken for granted safety device that saves lives. But there was a time when wearing a seatbelt was seen as evidence of reckless driving, like you only strapped yourself in because you planned to drive dangerously. In her 2006 book Injury: The Politics of Product Design and Safety Law in the United States, anthropologist Sarah Jain reported that, "one gentleman [she] interviewed told [her] that in the late 1960s his girlfriend's parents treated him with suspicion when they found out that he had installed seatbelts" (p.173). Our ideas about what things do can change over time.

What are helmets supposed to do? Here are some ideas I've heard about what helmets do:
1. They protect bicyclists when biking on shared streets because bicyclists are unpredictable and will dart in front of motorists who might unwittingly hit them
2. They protect bicyclists from head injury when they crash alone, which is much more common than incidents with motorists
3. They keep the helmet industry going
4. They perpetuate the idea that biking is unsafe
5. They make politicians look like they've done something effective when imposing a mandatory helmet law
6. They keep people off bikes because people don't want this to happen:

Clearly we think helmets can do things beyond act as a physical barrier between a head and a hard surface. We give a lot of agency to what is basically a foam hat! Because their meaning is contested, helmets are a very touchy subject. I have witnessed exchanges between bike academics over the question of helmet laws that devolved into schoolyard taunts, and once saw a suggestion that a pro-helmet figure be burned in effigy. There are valid points on both sides.

I've developed my own perspective on helmets from riding a bike for the last seven years and visiting cities as a bike researcher for the last five. As with many other aspects of bicycling, context matters when considering helmets. If I am going to bike at low speeds on neighborhood streets or on some off-street path, falling off my bike would be about the same as falling while walking.* And, as I have heard helmet critics point out, we're not going to try to get pedestrians to wear helmets, are we?

When I was in Copenhagen and Amsterdam this summer, I could see why wearing helmets there didn't seem important. People biked slowly, and had to pay attention to the many other street users. When I biked in Dublin, I wore a helmet because I felt wobbly with the different orientation of streets, and I wished I had one when I biked in London for the same reason. Where I live, in hilly Seattle, I would feel unsafe without a helmet to protect my brain when I'm flying downhill at speed. (I'm also so accustomed to wearing a helmet that to go without makes me feel naked, so the city's helmet ordinance is a moot point for me.) As for the helmet protecting me against motorists, if wearing a special hat makes your body feel safer when two tons of engine-powered metal are cutting close to your flesh, I'll have what you're having. I pay very close attention to the spaces where I ride, doing as much as I can to compensate for the undeniable fact that many road users are just plain not paying attention. My helmet doesn't solve that problem.

We all count on each other to stay alive when we're traveling, regardless of our transport mode. If we stay alert, and treat city streets like bustling places where different kinds of users are going to pop up, bicycling, walking, and driving will be safer for everyone. What do you think matters more when a kid is biking: wearing a helmet or being around motorists who notice what's going on outside their windows? If our streets are unsafe, that's our collective problem, and not something each bicyclist can fix by wearing a foam hat.

And yet, over and over, helmets come up when a motorist hits a bicyclist, like in the news I read today. How often are the people who tsk tsk over helmets bicyclists themselves? "Concern trolling" is an internet phrase that can mean pretending to care about someone's welfare, but really criticizing their conduct. That's what comes to my mind when I hear people who don't bike talk about helmets. It seems to me that concern trolling about helmets is a veiled statement that the speaker doesn't think bicyclists belong on the street anyway. It would be better if you were gone, they imply, but if you must impose your privileged, entitled presence on roads made for driving, at least wear a helmet. Or if you don't wear a helmet and you get hit by a car, well it's your fault, this line of logic seems to go, as this recent post on a mainstream ladyblog noted. Motorists shouldn't be blamed for hurting somebody that didn't belong there in the first place. That sounds really icky. Google's not driving your car yet folks, you are. While nobody wants to hit others, choosing to drive and yet expecting no other road users to appear is very dangerous.

As for the anti-helmet crowd, I think that part of the resistance comes from bicyclists who know that helmets are not going to change the fact that motorists don't want us in the street. A friend reported recently that while riding the bus he overheard one young man congratulate another for finally biking without a helmet. People seem to think that not wearing a helmet is a grand statement about bikes being "normal." But as bicyclists we often interact with motorists who are not used to sharing roads with nonmotorized transport modes, and some of these motorists make it clear that they don't want to see us as normal at all. We've got bigger fish to fry, and the helmet is a red herring.

*I have a friend who was biking on a quiet street without a helmet, when a little kid walking down the street asked his mom why that guy didn't have to wear a helmet. I bet that lady wished my friend had been wearing his stupid helmet so she didn't have to answer smartypants questions about it.