Street Life in San Francisco, Paris, New York, Victoria and Vancouver

Steven Pinker be damned! If you’d like evidence that history is more complex than the misguided notion that everything is always magically getting better I’d point you to these  films showing city life before our streets became sewers for cars.

I’ll get right down to my cranky point: they show that our streets and parks are worse and more impoverished since we ceded them to automobile interests.

To us who live in developed countries these street scenes can seem chaotic. I would suggest that instead of chaos they show a city life that’s more democratic. No one form of transit dominates. You can walk, ride a bike, take public transit or ride a horse and not feel like a second class citizen for not owning a car.

Here’s Victoria and Vancouver, Canada in 1907 where loose dogs seem to be a thing:

And New York:

And to notch up the crankiness let me point out that the clothes look a lot better too in the days before “athleisure.”

Bike Lane Blocking, An Angry Rant and Something You Can Do

Gavin Newsom campaign bus parked in a bike lane. Via @LABikeLaneBlock.

Los Angeles could be America’s greatest bike city. The weather is mild, the city mostly flat and a network of rail connections make the combo of bike and transit an appealing option. See Peter Flax’s article “Los Angeles is the Worst Bike City in America” for the gruesome details about why it’s so bad.

Let me just add that our climate crisis, so dramatically and tragically manifested in the wildfires that have swept California, requires us to make changes now for the sake of future generations. A good first step would be making alternatives to driving more safe and appealing. Unfortunately, LA’s allegedly “progressive” mayor and city council might as well be the Tea Party when it comes to transportation policy. Frankly, I’d rather deal with outright climate change deniers than our local elected officials such as mayor Garcetti who, rather than the un-sexy and often politically unpalatable work of installing bus only lanes and making the city more pedestrian and bike friendly, seems to think that the future lies in a techno-optimist future of flying cars and private tubes as peddled by Elon Musk. Instead of improvements we could have right now (all a bus lane takes is a line of paint) we’re waiting for a future that will never come.

I’ve held off writing this post for years but I can’t stay silent anymore. Let me share a few personal anecdotes from my time as a bike activist that illustrates the type of behavior one can expected from our local elected officials. Back in 2011, the city painted the first green bike lane, something you see in a lot of cities such as New York and Portland. Film companies objected because they said the green paint interfered with their shots. Councilman Jose Huizar (whose home and offices were raided by the FBI last week), in closed door sessions with lobbyists from the film industry, agreed to remove most of the green from the lanes, going against the recommendations of the department of transportation’s engineers. The entire city council went along with this and prevented the public from speaking at the council meeting. When I, politely, questioned then councilman Tom LaBonge about this decision he became agitated and intimidating.

I could go on about the transportation commissioners, the LAPD, the Automobile Club and Highway Patrol who opposed speed limit decreases. LaBonge’s former deputy Anne-Marie Johnson lobbied for the de-greened bike lanes and in her capacity as leader of the regressive Silver Lake Neighborhood Council supports removing the Rowena road diet. Or my own councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who keeps himself busy with vitue signalling photo opportunities, and might as well be a Koch family member when it comes to his opposition to a road safety plan for Temple street.

Many of the opportunities to deal with climate change are simple and don’t require technologies that don’t yet exist. But we also must not fall into the trap of thinking that the changes we need to make are only about personal choices. Many changes will also require us to work together, especially when it comes to those of us in cities trying to make it safe for people to walk and bike.

Film crew blocking Spring St. Bike lane. Via @ColinBogart.

Speaking of which, I want to conclude this angry and gloomy post with an opportunity for my fellow Angelino cyclists. While we have a few (not enough) bike lanes, those bike lanes are often blocked by film crews, Uber drivers and Highway Patrol officers picking up a burger. The LA County Bicycle Coalition has set up a reporting page to collect data on blocked lanes. The information collected will be used to lobby city officials. Unblocking those lanes is a whole lot simpler than a trip to mars or hailing an Uber drone.

Megabus: Like a Cruise Ship on Land

To avoid the indignities and environmental nightmare that is flying I prefer to travel by train or bus. When visiting San Francisco to see our relatives I take Amtrak’s San Joaquin train because you can take a bicycle without having to put it in a box. But on my most recent trip, since I was not bringing the bike, I decided to give Megabus a try.

You catch the Megabus in Los Angeles’s calving ground for buses, the Patsaouras Transit Plaza, on the eastern fringe of Union Station. You check in, your baggage gets placed in the luggage compartment and the driver welcomes you to your WiFi enabled leviathan on wheels.

The seat had adequate legroom for my 6’2″ carcass, much more than an airplane but slightly less than Amtrak. I didn’t test the WiFi, preferring instead to use my 8 1/2 hour travel time tackling Matthew Crawford’s anti-Kant rant, The World Outside Your Head (review forthcoming). The bathroom was clean and as pleasant as any bus bathroom can aspire to. The bus was near capacity but I was able to claim a row for myself. I suspect there would be more room on a weekday. Note that there is no overhead storage so you have to check your baggage.

The LA to SF route makes a brief stop in Burbank to pick up passengers and then, three hours later, you get a rest stop in the very liminal Kettleman City. The half hour stop gives you a chance to grab a road burrito and other convenience store delicacies or check out the bizarre architecture of Bravo Farms (not actually a farm). From there you travel through scenic Gilroy and make a stop in San Jose and Oakland before being deposited at the San Francisco CalTrain station. It was a quiet, uneventful and pleasant trip. If you reserve ahead you can get the top row of seats up front that have a panoramic view.

The chief reason to take the Megabus, in addition to avoiding the CO2 sins of air travel, is price. My trip cost $9.99 plus a $2.50 booking fee (one way). I’ve found tickets as low as $4.99. Megabus is usually cheaper than Amtrak and Greyhound. There’s a similar, low priced competitor FlixBus that I will try the next time I go up to San Francisco (if you’ve traveled via FlixBus please leave a comment). There’s also an overnight luxury sleeper bus called Cabin between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But since I can’t sleep on moving vehicles of any kind the roughly $100 Cabin experience would be a waste for me.

I wholeheartedly endorse bus or train travel over air travel especially for relatively short and medium distance intercity travel. Yes it takes longer but there’s no security hassle and you arrive relaxed and knowing much more about the problems with Kant’s categorical imperative.

122 Artist, Gardener and Activist Renee Garner

Image: Renee Garner.

There’s a struggle in cities, around the world, to make streets safer for everyone, especially our children and elders. One hundred years of car-centric planning has created cities and suburbs that are ugly and dangerous. Renee Garner is fighting a plan to turn the road in front of her home in Matthews, North Carolina into what would be, in effect, a multi-lane freeway. During our conversation we talk about her activism and what happened when a local reporter uncovered a trove of mean spirited text messages about her from the (now former) mayor. In addition to her efforts to stop the John Street widening project, Renee is an artist, illustrator and avid permaculturalist. You can find Renee’s website at renee-garner.com. Check out her amazing illustrations here.

If you’d like 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. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

How much time do you spend cycling in the city?

Hit and run accidents. Graph: AAA Foundation.

Reader Kyle says, “This will sound like a loaded question, but it is totally sincere: How much time do you spend cycling in the city? I tried re-taking up cycling as an adult in Seattle and it was terrifying, even in areas with clear bike lanes. In fact, I only cycled in areas with clear bike lanes….I had this vision that I would get comfortable enough that I would be able to cycle to my stable about 40 miles away via the trails paved over the old railway lines. My life changed and I ended up moving down there to shorten my commute, but cycling out here is very much an at-your-own-risk activity. But my experiment in Seattle failed. I was very much not comfortable on a bike, despite my grand vision of joining cycling culture and going all over the city without a car.”

A great question. The truth is that I spend less time cycling around Los Angeles than I did ten years ago. Partly, this is due to fewer family and work obligations. Kelly and I just don’t leave our neighborhood much anymore.

But there’s another reason I’m using my bike less and that’s because, like Kyle, I don’t feel safe. The carnage on our roads, after lessoning for many years, is back up. Hit and run accidents alone spiked by an astonishing 60% (see Hit-and-Run Deaths Are Skyrocketing, and Pedestrians and Cyclists Bear the Brunt in LA Streetsblog). Accident statistics related to cycling and walking are difficult to interpret as many incidents go unreported and police and the mainstream media often have a bias towards drivers. But the overall trend is not good. I’ve been hit by cars twice while riding a bike and Kelly got hit by a car while walking the dog last December.

While difficult to prove I believe we can blame the uptick in accidents on mobile devices. Combine those distracting devices with roads designed for high speeds and you’ve created the conditions that will scare people away from walking and biking. It’s a vicious feedback loop. We don’t feel safe so we drive more and thereby contribute to the problem.

The solution is also frustratingly simple: prioritize walking and cycling over driving. This involves slowing down traffic, making parking expensive and difficult, installing bike and bus only lanes and heavily penalizing anyone who texts and drives. Unfortunately, these are unpalatable and career ending policies for our council members and mayor.

But we can’t give up hope. I was a small part of the push, ten years ago, to make things better for cycling in Los Angeles. I feel like contributing to a second effort before I give up and move to the car-free paradise that is Venice, Italy (and drown in the rising waters caused by everyone driving).

This time around I’d like to help figure out a different strategy. But I’m not sure what that strategy will be. All I know is that we’ll have to try something other than having a bunch of hardcore cyclists show up and get ignored at LA’s horrible city council meetings. What that new strategy will be is something I’d like to turn my attention to once I’m done with my domestic carpentry duties.

Do you ride a bike? Have you taken up bike and pedestrian issues with your local politicians?