Self-Righteousness Fail: We Bought a Car

At least we got something interesting. Image: Paleofuture.

At least we got something interesting to drive. Image: Paleofuture.

Back in March, a video producer who was texting-while-driving slammed into me and totaled the early 90′s hatchback that Kelly and I shared. We went from a one car household to a car-free household overnight. A combination of environmental guilt and distaste for car shopping led us to a six month car free living experiment in Los Angeles. That period ended in late September when we purchased a car from a friend. It’s well past time we came clean and discussed the ups and downs of car-free living, as well as the reasons that led us to start burning dinosaur juice once again.

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Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective

I laughed and cried when I first watched this video. The Dutch are at least forty years ahead of us in terms of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

Holland hasn’t always been a pedestrian and bike friendly place. In the early 1970s, prompted by the death by motor vehicle of his child, Dutch journalist Vic Langenhoff started a campaign to transform the streets of the Netherlands. Inspired by his articles, groups of angry mothers took to the streets and held up signs reading “Stop de Kindermoord” (Stop the Child Murder). London Cycling sums up the campaign,

‘Stop de Kindermoord’ was a powerful message, and it gathered widespread support among mainstream commentators and young urban political activists. In Amsterdam in the early 1970s, there were already organisations with the aims of demotorising cities, improving public transport, preventing the bulldozing of heritage sites and controlling pollution. These campaigners opposed the statist interventions of the Left and the laissez-faire economics of the Right, both of which they felt threatened the quality of urban life.

Is it time for a similar campaign in the US?

How Much Can You Carry on a Bike Part II

weight bench on Xtracycle

Despite owning a cargo bike for seven years, using it to haul countless loads of groceries, hardware and even people, I often find myself doubting its capabilities. Recently, I needed to transport an unused weight bench a few blocks to a friend’s house. I put the task off for weeks, assuming that I’d need to do this on one of the days we rent a car.

Impatient with the mess in the garage, I decided to see if I could bike it over. I strapped the weight bench to my Xtracycle and off I went on one of the smuggest journeys of my life. My smugness did not go unnoticed. As I crossed Sunset Boulevard a fixie riding hipster rode up alongside and shot some video with his smart phone. In addition to this blog, my weight bench journey is immortalized somewhere on Facebook.

It took two trips–one for the bench and the other to move 100 pounds of weights and a barbell.

I still owe Syd Mead a load of watermelons.

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.

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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?