082 Get Outdoors with Jeff Potter

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My guest this week is journalist and outdoor enthusiast Jeff Potter who runs outyourbackdoor.com. We talk about cross country skiing, riding bikes paddling boats and even eating road kill. You can find Jeff’s non-lycracentric cross country ski how-to videos in his Out Your Backdoor Youtube channel. During the podcast we also ponder the question, “If you could have only one bike what kind of bike would it be?” We get into canoe vs. kayak, how to roll a kayak and the joys of cyclocross.

Make sure to check out all the cool things Jeff has for sale on his website as well as his wife Martha Bishop’s website lazygal.biz.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Two apps for choosing bike routes: one good, one bad

img_0873-1.jpgOne of the single most important lessons I’ve learned about riding a bike in a big city in the U.S. is that you’ve got to choose your route carefully. Pick quiet streets and you can avoid speeding, angry motorists. Even in a car-centric city like Los Angeles, if you do your homework, you can find residential alternatives to major arterials that will make you think you’re in Amsterdam. Well, almost.

Before going somewhere unfamiliar, I used to pour over bike maps to figure out where the bike lanes and paths were. Now, there are apps for that.

The Good: Google Maps
In 2010, a bike option was added to Google Maps. While not perfect, it works surprisingly well. Combined with a little familiarity with what streets are good and bad to ride on, I now find that I rarely look at the city’s bike maps anymore.

Here’s an example: one weekend this month, Kelly needed the car and I had to across town, from the La Brea Expo line station to the new Westchester Community Oven.

The route Google Maps suggested was excellent:

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It routed me on to the La Ballona creek bike path and from there to a reasonably calm street and then to a bike and pedestrian path that I didn’t know existed. The path gets you up a steep hill quickly and avoids a not so fun to bike on major boulevard. Now, it just so happens that I know a drainage ditch that’s better than the path Google Maps suggested, but that’s splitting hairs:

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Google maps also talks to you, so you can keep your attention on the road. I’ve compared it to a number of routes that I routinely ride and Google Maps’ suggestions are just as good, sometimes better. One feature that I wish it had was a way to combine transit and bike routes together rather than separately.

The bad: Go LA
Xerox and the city of LA just came out with an app called Go LA that, in addition to driving and public transit options, also suggests bike routes.

Unfortunately, like so many other initiatives in Los Angeles, the bike portion of Go LA is just an afterthought. If you like your bike rides to be like a meat world version of Frogger, you’ll love what Go LA suggests. I compared a number of trips that I commonly take on my bike in both Go LA and Google Maps. Google suggested routes were much better. Go LA seems to just suggest the shortest routes, which are most often really unpleasant streets to bike on. Here’s the same route as above, but in Go LA:

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It’s obvious that Go LA doesn’t have any data for bike paths, lanes or routes. The route it suggested would be high-stress and, possibly, dangerous.

Perhaps they have plans to improve the bike portion of this app in the future, but they have a lot of catching up to do with Google. And I was excited, at first, to see that Go LA suggests combined bike/public transit options. But, again, until they improve the bike routing portion of this app, it’s basically useless. A press release from Xerox alluded to improvements that will let you track fitness, but why do that when there are so many other apps that already track calories and effort? Giving cyclists the tools they need to find peaceful routes for useful trips will be much more valuable in the long run.

In my search for apps I came across a number of cities around the world that have dedicated bike apps. If you’ve tried any of those, please leave a comment. If the city you live in doesn’t have a good app, give Google Maps a try.

Los Angeles Announces Separated Bike Lanes on Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard is about to get a major makeover. Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell announced today the installation of fully separated bike lanes along the iconic boulevard. The project will connect Echo Park with Hollywood and make it safer for residents to bike to Metro Red line stations along this busy corridor. City planners estimate that the resulting switch from cars to bikes for short trips will cut everybody’s travel time, resulting in a win-win for both cyclists and motorists.

He also spoke of additional positive outcomes. “Finally our children will be able to safely ride their bikes to school, or to visit the local ice cream shop,” said O’Farrell.  Signalling the end of a hundred years of car-centric planning, O’Farrell’s links the new bike lanes with his goal to lessen the devastating impact of climate change and end the U.S’s dependence on fossil fuels.  He added, “It’s no coincidence we’re fighting wars in the Middle East.”

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Current bike lane conditions on Sunset: narrow and often blocked.

Funding will come from two unique sources: fines for owners of illegal billboards and film companies caught blocking bike lanes without a permit. “I’m happy to be killing two birds with one stone on this one,” said O’Farrell.

Operation Firefly: Lighting Up the Night

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There’s a common stereotype of the average bike rider. We tend to think of a privileged man wearing skin-tight, candy bar colored Lycra and riding a $5,000 Italian bicycle (not that there’s anything wrong with that–cycling is a great way to get exercise). But the reality in Los Angeles and many other big cities around the world is that the average rider is not someone who wants to ride a bike but is, instead, someone who must ride a bike either to get to work or to school. Which is why, when the days get short, I appreciate the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Operation Firefly:

Operation Firefly/Operacíon Luciérnaga is an education and bike light distribution program intended to make sure people riding bikes in Los Angeles County are riding safely at night. Our Team Firefly volunteers flag down unlit riders, install lights, distribute informational spoke cards, and conduct a survey. Now in its fourth season, data from last year’s survey showed that 75% of light recipients use their bicycle as their main form of transportation. See last year’s fact sheet.

Please consider giving a donation. The ability to get around safely is a basic human right.

Lost from the cradle of connection: the high price of driving

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P32 investigates a camera, February 2015 (National Park Service)

On August 10 of this year, sometime in the early morning, a young mountain lion known to us as P32 was killed on the Interstate 5 near Castaic.

He had been tracked by researchers for two years–and appeared on the local news now and then– as he traversed the borderlands of our civilization, crossing our roads and slinking through our backyards as he made his way from wild space to wild space, traveling all the way from the Santa Monica Mountains to Pyramid Lake. Cameras caught him making four freeway crossings in the past, and certainly he made more  He had to cross highways. An adult mountain lion needs about 200 miles of home range to make a living.

State officials call his death “Sad, but not surprising.”

On August 10th, P32 became “roadkill.” Roadkill is an odd term, isn’t it?  The road didn’t kill P32, a driver did.

There’s some odd blameshifting going on there. The term roadkill implies that no one is at fault. It also seems to indicate that roads will kill, inevitably, and any creature hit by a car was stupid to be on the road in the first place. They should know the rules: step on our roads and you die.

After the collision, the animal is denigrated by the means of its death to a nonentity. P32 ceased to be a lion and became roadkill–and roadkill is a joke.

How big of a joke? According to the Humane Society, one million animals die on U.S. roads every day.

Yes, one million every day.

It’s a hard number to get your head around. It’s a hard number to come to, because most animal deaths are not reported. Animals tend to make the stats only  if they’re large enough to damage a vehicle, or must be dragged from the road to clear the way for traffic. No one is counting all of the flattened rabbits and possums and squirrels and the sparrows and turtles and snakes, so I’m not sure how the Humane Society is calculating this number, but I don’t doubt it. It’s probably low.

And what about insects?

Researchers in the Netherlands estimate that 800 billion insects die on the hoods of automobiles every six months in the Netherlands alone. British research brings in similar numbers in terms of bugs killed per distance traveled. Treehugger extrapolated that number for the US, and reckons we kill about 32 trillion insects a year while driving.

(An aside, I once heard Emily Green comment that planting the median strip of a busy boulevard with flowers was like parking an ice cream truck in the middle of a freeway. In other words, how many pollinators die trying to cross traffic to get to our beautified medians? Talk about being killed by good intentions.)

How much of the food supply for birds and frogs and other creatures is lost on our hoods and under our wheels? And while few people would mourn the passing of a mosquito or a fly on the windshield, but what about the night pollinating moths, what about the Monarchs, what about the bees?

We’re all up in arms about CCD, about pesticides and dying pollinators–how many bees are we killing all by ourselves as we drive?

In the same way, we decry shelters which euthanize dogs and cats, we abhor animal testing, but we kill more animals on the roads than we do in the shelters and the labs.

But let’s get more anthropocentric. What about human deaths?

In 2013, in the U.S. alone:

  • 32,719 people died in car-related accidents (This number is significantly down from past years, but sadly seems to be going back up this year.)
  • 4,735 of these were pedestrians (i.e. people trying to walk around–I kind of hate the word pedestrian) A further 22,000 people were injured by car drivers.
  • 735 of the dead were cyclists

FYI, 3,551,332 people have died in the US in motor vehicle accidents since we invented cars. The chart of this year by year progression is grimly interesting.  As is this chart of countries by traffic related death rates.

In sum, every year I’ve been alive, an average of 45,000 people have died–in the US alone–simply because they needed to get to work, or school or the store.

Why is it acceptable to us that so many people must die just because they needed to get somewhere? Do we live in a war zone? How many casualties are acceptable in this engagement?

And beyond the lives lost, there’s the money. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that highway accidents cost $277 billion dollars a year in straight up economic costs ($900 per person in the US) and a more fuzzy $594 billion in “societal harm,” meaning pain suffered, decreased quality of life, etc. The total is $871 billion in losses per year.

And all of the above is simple an accounting of deaths and money. Stuff which isn’t abstract. Blood on the pavement is hard to spin. I haven’t touched on climate change, air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, habitat loss, urban sprawl, songbird harassment–all of the rest of indicators of the unspeakably high cost of the personal automobile.

So, okay, this is all depressing. What’s my point?

The point is:

What are we thinking?

I mean, seriously, what are we thinking? Can we step back from this?

I doubt it. We can’t talk about giving up the personal automobile. We can’t even think about alternatives, no matter what it costs us, anymore than an Easter Islander could stop chopping down trees.

Our blindness is intractable, and all-encompassing. For us, cars are not merely a convenient transportation device of fairly recent invention. They are magical talismans. They represent us: our souls, our freedom and self-determination.

I don’t know if we can escape this kind of blindness. I speak for myself. I drive. I live in a car-centric city. I know better. And still I drive.

But I do wonder why, and I wonder what it is doing to our souls.

The road is an ugly place and it makes for ugly people. I was on the freeway today, and as usual had a few scary moments and did my obligatory bit of swearing at my fellow man. You’d think the roads were stuffed with sociopaths rather than decent people trying to get through their day. We change when we’re on the road.

We don’t look one another in the eye. We’re anonymous. We’re armored. We’re more powerful than we are on our feet, so we feel invincible.

Life, real life, good life, is about connection. Connection with ourselves, with nature, with spirit, with each other. It’s about relationships. And relationships are formed face to face. Our freeways and boulevards are places of anti-connection, anti-relationship. Taken out of the cradle of connection, we turn into monsters.

The dead by the road, or on it, testify to the presence of man. Their little gestures of pain—paws, wings and tails—are the saddest, the loneliest, most forlorn postures of the dead I can imagine. When we have stopped killing animals as though they were so much refuse, we will stop killing one another.

But the highways show our indifference to death, so long as it is someone else’s. It is an attitude of the human mind I do not grasp. I have no point of connection with it. People drive in such a way that you think they do not believe in death. Their own lives are their business, but my life is not their business. I cannot refrain from terrific anger when I am threatened so casually by strangers on a public road.  – Timothy Findley,  from Journeyman: Travels of a Writer, 1965

If there were any grown-ups in this world, they’d take our cars from us, because we’ve been very bad with our toys.

I’ve been trying to be a grown-up. Which means I’ve been thinking about bicycling, even though I’m afraid to even get on a bike in this city. I feel like a huge hypocrite for not doing so, though, and the balance of moral incentive versus fear keeps tipping as I am forced, day by day, to acknowledge the costs of my behavior.

The death of P32 has pushed me a little further toward courage.

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Note: If you’d like to help track animal road deaths so that a) we know the actual numbers and b) so we could maybe get some money together to build culverts or bridges for animals to use to cross highways, check out:

Roadkill Survey by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

And if you live in California or Maine:

Wildlife Crossing