How Much Can You Carry on a Bicycle?

Xtracycle with a load of bamboo.

How I transported the 8-foot poles for our new trellis.

We’re overdue for an update on our car-free Los Angeles lifestyle experiment, but one thing that has made it possible is the cargo bike I’ve had since 2006, the Xtracycle.

Xtracycle pioneered the “longtail” bike, essentially a bike stretched out in order to accommodate large panier bags. My Xtracycle was an add-on to an existing mountain bike. Xtracycle and their competitors now sell complete longtail bikes. Tom Vanderbilt just wrote a good article for the Wall Street Journal, “Cargo Bikes: The New Station Wagon,” looking at a number of different cargo bikes.

Coinciding with the Wall Street Journal article was a cranky editorial in a local rag by “futurist” Syd Mead (designer of Blade Runner and Tron and chief thoughtstylist behind the Playboy Land Yacht). Mead says,

While the bicycle has many virtues, it also prompts people to go overboard. It’s often lauded as the transportation of tomorrow and the savior of cities. It is not. It is called transportation. It is not. That’s because the bicycle is not, strictly defined, a transport device. Ever try to carry a watermelon on a bicycle? (Yes, it can be done, but how much else could you carry?)

watermelon2

How much else can you carry on bike? On a recent trip, in addition to a watermelon, I picked up a gallon jug of vinegar, a 12 pack of toilet paper (no we have not yet switched to a corn cob on a string–I might be the world’s smuggest blogger, but you pick your battles), 12 cans of sparkling water, a jumbo box of kitchen trash bags and a few other items.

Xtracycle fully loaded with groceries.

Here’s another grocery store trip. And the haul being inspected for self righteousness by the cats:

IMG_0102 copy

The Xtracycle easily accommodates four heavy grocery bags. If you bring some bungee cords, you can carry even more (cat litter!). I can load up a full grocery cart and transport home just as many items as we used to in the car.

Longtail bikes handle just like regular bikes. Their long wheel base, in fact, makes them more stable. And I’m always surprised at how easy it is to climb hills even with heavy groceries.

One need not be car-free to enjoy a cargo bike. For many years Kelly and I shared a car. The Xtracycle was a big part of making that car-light arrangement work. When people ask if urban homesteading saves money, the first thing I point to is the cargo bike, not the chicken coop.

The problem? Cargo bikes are not nearly as sexy as the Playboy Land Yacht. That’s a problem I’ll get to in a future post.

Film Industry Comprimises Safety of Cyclists

Spring-Press-Ride-11Nov21-2386

Photo: LA Streetsblog.

On Tuesday the Los Angeles City Council, under heavy pressure from the film industry, voted to remove most of the green paint from bike lanes on Spring Street. The lanes had been installed two years ago as part of a pilot project to test this type of highly visible bike lane used in other cities such as New York and Chicago. Film industry groups complained from the very beginning, claiming that the lanes screwed up their shots. The lanes, however, were popular with local businesses, the Downtown Neighborhood Council and residents. And a bike count conducted by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition showed an overall 52% increase in bike traffic on Spring Street. There was a 100% increase in women cyclists on weekdays and a 650% increase in women cyclists on the weekend.

I was a part of a group of cycling advocates who attended the City Council meeting. Before the bike lane issue came up on the agenda, we all had to endure a two hour self-congratulatory tribute to an outgoing, term-limited councilman. When the bike lane agenda item finally came up, councilman Huizar announced that the Council and film industry had reached a “compromise” and that there would be no public comment. So much for democracy.

The “compromise” consists of removing most of the green paint. Here’s the before and after:

la-me-bike-lane-paint-20130619-g

Source: LA Times.

As a pilot project, theses lanes were under evaluation by LA Department of Transportation engineers. The council, essentially, interfered with this experiment at the behest of moneyed interests. It would have been nice to see if these lanes increased safety. Now we won’t know.

After the council approved the compromise, without public comment, Councilman Tom LaBonge came up to me and asked me what I thought. I told him that I thought the council was compromising safety. He told me that the film industry is important here. I asked him if he thought a film is worth a human life. He said, “we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

On Living in Los Angeles Without a Car: A Debate

busla

Photo by Sarah Sulaiman LAStreetsblog.org.

Walkin’ in L.A., nobody walks in L.A.
Walkin’ in L.A.
Walkin’ in L.A., only a nobody walks in L.A.

- Missing Persons

Erik: It’s been nearly two months since a texting video producer totaled the car that Kelly and I shared: a 1993 teal Acura Integra hatchback. Except for a few car rentals, we haven’t been doing much driving. In short, we get to claim the olive wreath of eco-smugness: living car-free in the epicenter of car culture, Los Angeles. Not even the electric car driving Ed Begley Jr. can aspire to our level of self-righteousness. I’d like to continue the experiment.

Kelly:  Hmmm….do I get to be the bad guy in this debate? The car partisan? To me, it’s not so much a question of car or no car. I don’t like cars. I’d love to live without a car. The question for me is more like LA or no LA, because this city is built around the car. I want to live car-free, but I don’t want to do it here. I know it’s possible–we’ve been doing it. But it’s not pleasant.

Have you ever heard the term “pole shade”? It’s the thin sliver of shadow thrown down by the pole of a street light. People waiting for buses in LA huddle in the pole shadows, trying to shelter from the insanely intense LA sun. There are very few bus shelters here. Bus stops are ill-marked afterthoughts in an already unlovely urban landscape.  I stand in the pole shade, wondering if the bus will ever come, and I seethe about the way this city treats its pedestrians.

Continue reading…

Power to the Peoplemover, a Zine About Riding the Bus

The cover of issue 2.0 of Power to the Peoplemover

The cover of issue 2.0 of Power to the Peoplemover

Many hours spent on the bus in the past two months, thanks to the dude who totaled our car, has reminded me of the conceptual ancestor of this blog, a zine about bus riding I edited in the early 1990s with Canadian artist Michael Waterman called Power to the Peoplemover (PPM).

For the kids out there zines were, essentially, xeroxed blogs. We didn’t have the interwebs, but we did have something called Factsheet Five, a kind of telephone directory of zines. You listed your zine in Factsheet Five and people would send you self addressed envelopes to secure a copy of your zine. It makes me feel very old to describe this process, incidentally.

Detail from PPM issue 2.0

Detail from PPM issue 2.0

In addition to Factsheet Five, PPM had a second and unique distribution method. It was designed to look like a San Diego bus schedule (where Mike and I lived at the time). We would sneak copies on to buses we rode and put them on the racks that held the official schedules.

Power to the Peoplemover bus bench on Park Avenue in San Diego.

Power to the Peoplemover bus bench on Park Avenue in San Diego.

We also collaborated on this PPM bus bench that was part of a UCSD Art Department show. The bus bench contained stories and cartoons related to riding the bus–in effect, it was another issue of PPM. I used to wait at this bus stop myself and, during the month it was up, I watched people read and discuss the bench. It seemed to be popular, at least more so than the adjoining casino ad.

PPM Bus Bench detail

PPM Bus Bench detail.

There were three print issues of PPM and the bench. I’ve finally gotten around to posting PPM issue 1.0 and issue 2.0 on archive.org. Issue 3.0 has gone missing. I should note that PPM is potty-mouthed and has an oh so 1990s editorial tone (an era that has not yet had its ironic revival).

I predict we may see a zine revival. Perhaps staring at all those glowing screens is getting old . . .

The Vermont Sail Freight Project

Vermont farmer and baker Erik Andrus not only uses draft horses on his farm and to deliver baked goods, but also plans on reviving the lost art of shipping freight under sail power. Andrus has a Kickstarter going to fund the the consturction of a 39 foot sailing vesel, the “Ceres” which will carry 12 tons of rice and other shelf-stable goods from Ferrisburgh, Vermont to New York City.

vermontboat

The Ceres is already under construction and is due to start sailing by this fall. You can follow progress on the project at: http://vermontsailfreightproject.wordpress.com/

And James Howard Kunstler interviewed Andrus on his podcast.

Someone revive the west coast version . . .

We’re Car Free

skull/cell phone street art

Street art by Skullphone.

Well, at least temporarily. Some idiot piloting a SUV sturdy enough to patrol the streets of Kabul rear-ended me last week. He was probably busy posting a Yelp review on his smart phone.  I’m still in pain and our car is totaled, but I’m thankful I’m alive.

In the meantime Kelly and I have no car. Normally this isn’t much of an issue as I can get around by bike/public transit. But my neck and back are too creaky right now to do that. I’m considering some crazy options:

Become agoraphobic
I remember an interview with actor Harry Dean Stanton in which he described the way he deals with the craptacularness that is the City of Los Angeles. His answer? He never leaves the house. I could have stuff delivered–everything from straw bales to groceries are just a click or phone call away. Why venture out on this town only to see miles of deteriorating streets overseen by corrupt politicians? When I want to get some nature time,  I could rent a car. We’d save thousands of dollars.

Buy a Car
Car shopping, for me, is about as fun as a root canal without Novocaine. Was the 19th century carriage industry this scammy?

Take the car of the idiot who hit me
My new Jeep Wranger would be courtesy of the music video producer who totaled my car. (His mammoth vehicle, by the way, was hardly scratched.)  You should have to face consequences for negligence–this was not an “accident,” after all. Wreck someone else’s car by your own stupidity and you should have to donate your car to the person you hit. Nassim Taleb would suggest that the same principle should apply to Wall Street bankers. There would be a whole lot less texting while driving and financial risk taking if, as Taleb puts it, “captains went down with their ships.”

Move to Venice, Italy
Not only is Venice car free it’s also bike, moped, bus and train free. But then I’d probably end up in a nautical accident caused by a texting gondolier.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
I’m cursing my useless music degree. If only I had gone to a college that combined rigorous writing classes with machine shop and auto repair. My dream: a Kickstarter campaign to fund the conversion of a 1970s era Dodge Viper into a bad-ass electric vehicle. Or fuel it with our humanure methane digester. Airbrush the Root Simple logo on the door and folks would really notice our arrival at book signings–especially when we do donuts in the parking lot.

root simple viper

So, dear readers, what do you think we should do?

Is Urban Homesteading Over With?


It seems that we’re back in a period of irrational exuberance. I know because I keep hearing about people lining up to buy crumbling 1,000 square foot bungalows in dodgy Los Angeles neighborhoods for $1,000,000. History tells us that during these periods folks ditch their chicken coops and vegetable gardens and head to the mall to shop.

I hope I’m wrong, that during our next economic bubble people will be more sensible. And the fundamentals have not changed, specifically the uncertain future of fossil fuels. I’m not trading my trips to the feed store for a shopping spree at Hot Topic anytime soon.

So I thought I’d plug a few search terms relating to urban homesteading into Google Trends to see what is going on. This is, of course, highly unscientific–Google Trends may just reflect media generated interest, not what people are actually doing. Here’s what I found:

Backyard Chickens

Many urban homesteading activities are seasonal–in spring people start searching for information on chickens and vegetable gardens, so you’ll see upward spikes towards the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Judging from the results on “backyard chickens,” it looks like that it’s a trend that is growing in popularity. Some of this activity may be related to legalization efforts, but I’d like to think that it reflects a growing dissatisfaction with our industrial agriculture system.

Gardening

It seems that searches for gardening of all kinds–I tried “vegetable gardening,” “vegetable seeds,” “rose pruning” and “lawn care,” are down. I think this may reflect a demographic shift–an older generation dying off. We need to get young people gardening!

Bread Baking

No wonder I can’t seem to offer enough bread baking classes.

Bicycles


Cycling is down, but I’m sure this reflects disenchantment with Lance Armstrong and professional cycling.

Searches for “bike commuting” are up slightly.

It’s inevitable that media interest in home ec topics will decline when the stock market is up. Just remember how quickly vegetable gardens and chicken coops were abandoned in the 1980s. But I have a good feeling that the lessons of the last few years will stick better than they did in the 1970s. What do you think?

How to Cycle Safely

No I’m not making this up. Thank you Bikesnobnyc for finding a “bicycle accident fun set.”

To follow up on yesterday’s post Is Cycling Too Dangerous? I thought I’d post some tips and resources I’ve found handy for staying out of trouble on a bike.

Tips

First, I’m assuming that we’re all following the rules of the road, i.e. stopping at red lights, riding with traffic, as well as using lights, wearing a helmet etc. And I’m talking about rules for adults here–kids are a different situation. These are just a few of what I consider the most important things I’ve learned:

  • Route choice. I carefully choose my regular routes to maximize the time I spend on quiet, seldom traveled side streets or in bike lanes/paths. I will go well out of my way to avoid high speed, bike-unfriendly streets. When going to a place I’ve never biked before I choose a route ahead of time on a map. Google has a bike option now that can work as a starting point. Many cities also have bike maps that can also be handy.
  • When going through an intersection watch out for people making left tuns. Assume that you are not seen even if you are wearing a florescent pink bunny suit. Also watch out for people making right turns. Always assume the worst is about to happen and have a plan to either turn quickly or slam on the brakes.
  • Avoid the door zone. There are rare exceptions when I will dip into the door zone briefly (only while going very slowly). But for the most part you should stay out of it. It is impossible to predict if a door will open.
  • Lane positioning is an art not a science. It comes with experience. At any given spot on a road I might be further to the left or right depending on what time of day it is, what the weather is like and the general “mood’ of the street. A good guide to getting the hang of how far to the left or right to be is an excellent book The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst.
  • Controlling anger. This is the skill that took the longest. I’ve since learned to ignore all honking and even the most egregious behavior on the part of motorists. Arguments are not worth the time and can quickly escalate to violence. Plus you come off like the Portlandia bike dude.
  • The sidewalk is, generally, not a good place to be. The problem comes when you roll off the sidewalk and into the intersection. It’s asking to be hit by a motorist turning right or left. They won’t see you and you can’t dodge the car as well as you could as a pedestrian.

Resources

  • Online I really like the website bicyclesafe.com
  • And, once again: The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst. I’m suprised that more people don’t know about this book. It changed my life and saved my ass on more than one occasion.
  • Lastly, a friend of mine, attorney Ross Hirsch has a checklist you can download and carry with you in case you’re in an accident. You can find it here (pdf). It has a list of things you should write down as well as California laws relating to cycling. Even if you don’t live in California the checklist is handy.

Please feel free to add other tips you think I should have mentioned in the comments.

Is Cycling Too Dangerous?

Photo by Dru Marland.

I’ve been hit by cars twice cycling around Los Angeles. In the first accident a medical delivery driver made a left turn in front of me and I collided with the rear panel of his car. It was his fault but, initially, the driver’s employer tried to come after me for $900 worth of damage. Fortunately, their insurance company took my side in the matter and even replaced my bent fork. In the second accident, a motorist bumped me from the right. I’m not sure what happened, but I think he was merging out of a parking space and didn’t see me. Thankfully, they were minor collisions and I walked away from both without a scratch. But the cycling death of an acquaintance and the serious accidents of several friends has caused me to consider the risks of cycling, particularly in this less than bike friendly city.

An excellent blog post on the Guardian takes up the question of the costs and benefits of cycling. Author Peter Walker does the right thing, in my opinion, by seeking the opinion of public health experts. One, Dr. Harry Rutter, has this to say:

All activities carry a risk. For some reason there seems to be strong focus on the risk of injury associated with cycling. Clearly, when deaths do takes place that’s tragic, and we need to do all we can to avoid them. But I think there is a perception that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is.

This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it’s given. What we don’t notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there’s a cost to that sedentary time. It’s silent, it doesn’t get noticed. What we’re talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.

Having volunteered on the board the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition for a few years, I’m well aware of how hard it is to make our cities more bike and pedestrian friendly. Another expert Walker talks to compared the struggle for safer cycling and walking infrastructure to efforts to curb smoking, noting that the anti-tobacco struggle took 60 years to get going.

The article concludes with a provocative conclusion, “There are two interventions that we know increase walking and cycling: living in the Netherlands and living in Denmark.”

So what do you readers think? Is cycling worth the risk?