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