Scooters? Not a New Idea

Sun, Oct 8, 1916 – Page 58 · New York Herald (New York, New York) · Newspapers.com

It turns out the urban scooter craze isn’t a new idea. From a story in an October 8, 1916 newspaper, “Skidding Through Fact and Fancy on an Autoped: Solo Devil Wagon Taken Up in a Serious Way Might Add New Terrors to City Life” is a description of motorized scooter not all that different than the ones we see today:

You stand on the cute platform and get your feet neatly fitted on the rubber mats which seem to have “Welcome, little stranger,” written all over them, grab the handle and away you go. First you careen like a lugger in a typhoon and then you lurch over until the lee scuppers are awash. You skim along the asphalt and say “Whoa!” just like that.

In your frenzy you give the handles a twist and then fall all over yourself and meet your spats coming back. The autoped has the disposition of a bronco and the guile of an eel. However, take heart of grace and go to it for one has but one neck and two legs and is likely to come away with some of them.

The autoped was patented in 1913 and manufactured by the Autoped Company of Long Island City, New York between 1915 to 1921. It was propelled by a 4-stroke, 155 cc engine. After the autoped company went out of business Krupp made a version in Germany between 1919 to 1922. I going to take a wild guess that it didn’t catch on for two reasons: car companies successfully bribed city governments to design our roads to favor cars and push out any competition and the fact that a motorcycle or bicycle, with their larger wheels, are more stable than standing on a scooter.

The 1916 article echos some of the contemporary paranoia about scooters. On that note, I’m happy to see anything that gets people out of cars which are the real, “Devil Wagons.” Let us remember that our auto addiction is responsible for 1.3 million deaths around the world every year. Here in Los Angeles, like many other cities, there is a “first mile/last mile” problem with using our subway/light rail system. That is, the trains here in LA work as reasonably as any train in our backwards country, but it can take a long time to get to the station if you don’t live within walking distance. I can definitely see something like rental bikes and scooters as part of a transportation solution that addresses climate change, first mile-last mile problems and congestion. I also have hope that the folks trying out the scooters will see how bad conditions on our streets are and will help fight for better infrastructure for alternative transportation.

That said, I’m not crazy about the companies that run the scooters. They are the same predatory tech bros who care nothing for their employees or for the niceties of working with communities and governments. I’m also skeptical about braving LA’s many potholes on something with small wheels but maybe that’s just cranky old risk-averse me. At least electric scooters are an improvement on the autoped’s internal combustion engine.

Thanks to @PessimistsArc for the tip.

On Moon Bases, Free Parking and One Hell of a Grim Swedish Science Fiction Movie

My post Monday linking to the Streetsblog video on Amsterdam’s re-purposing 10,000 parking spaces seems to have touched a nerve and sparked a heated discussion. Collect a random assortment of Americans together and I actually think we could have easier conversations about politics and religion than about parking. But we need to start talking about parking and the hold automobile culture has taken on our lives, health and wallets. Many of us would like to bike more but are afraid to because of the dangerous car-centric way in which our streets are constructed. And why take the bus when it’s so easy to find a free parking space?

To the partisans of the unalienable right to free parking I ask that you consider the video above for a quick overview of the subject featuring the godfather of parking scholarship, Donald Shoup. To summarize the video, the absurdities of parking regulation play a partial role in the homelessness and housing affordability crisis in many big cities. We’d do well to consider alternatives to the parking craters that deface our cities and make it less likely that we’ll walk, bike or take public transit.

Now on to the tangentially related subject of moon bases. My primary objection to manned space travel in general is that it gives a false sense that there is something else in this universe for us other than the paradisaical planet we currently call home and that we can screw things up here and escape to space stations, mars or other solar systems. While space offers lots of free parking potential, the simple fact is that life outside earth is inhospitable in the extreme and the distances involved in reaching other solar systems make that travel impossible.

I can think of no better warning of the vastness and horror of space than a recent Swedish movie Aniara, based on an epic poem, which you can watch via Amazon. Let me warn you that this film, despite the lack of gore, is definitely not for kids or for a cozy date night. While I’m not a fan of the film’s nihilism and dismissal of the numinous it does an excellent job of parodying the political impasse we’re currently living in (the spaceship in the film is nothing more than a bland shopping mall lead by leaders who everyone knows are lying). To my point, Aniara portrays space for what it is: an endless, empty realm of eternal darkness. The lesson of the film is don’t screw things up on earth–it’s all we’ve got.

Colonizing space is delusional, but working on making our cities more livable is eminently achievable.

What Happens When You Remove 10,000 Parking Spaces

In response to Jeff Bezos’ assertion that he can’t think of anything better to do with his billions than build a moon base, let us collectively imagine a list of more worthwhile ideas he could fund. How about an organization that would gift all expenses paid trips to Amsterdam for any nay-saying, “We can’t possibly do that here” Angelino unable to imagine a future without gobs of free parking? Speak out in favor of parking at a community meeting and, congratulations, here’s your KLM ticket. Drop an angry I-can’t-find-parking-tweet? Get ready to smell the tulips.

This Streetfilms production shows what can happen when we de-clutter the cars from our cities. Here in LA, those cars no longer “spark joy.” Get rid of them and we could have gardens, playgrounds, space for public transit and so much more.

How FilmLA Blocks Bike Lanes

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

What good is a bike lane if it’s always blocked by cars and trucks? As anyone who uses what passes for the meager bike infrastructure here in Los Angeles, pretty much only early on Sunday morning will you find your path unimpeded by an assortment of Uber drivers, beer delivery trucks and FedEx employees. But the most annoying bike lane blocking is courtesy of the film and television industry.

In order to close a bike lane for filming you have to get a film permit from FilmLA, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit public benefit organization that issues film permits in the City of Los Angeles and many other local municipalities as well as promoting filming in Southern California. That dual mission is, of course, a conflict of interest. If the choice is between the safety of bike commuters or making production companies happy, you can guess that FilmLA’s likely to opt for the latter.

Previous attempts to address unsafe closures of bike lanes by myself and other bike activists have gone nowhere. Call FilmLA to complain and you’ll be greeted with either indifference or outright hostility. Call the police to complain and they’ll direct you to parking enforcement. Call parking enforcement and they’ll direct you to the police. Only if the production company lacks the proper permits will the city take any action.

To find out more about this problem I decided to call FilmLA, posing as a producer to find out how I could get a film permit that would allow me to block the Spring Street protected bike lane. To set the scene here, so to speak, I’ll note that the Spring Street bike lane is rare in Los Angeles in that it is a fully protected lane (recently made two-way), and separate from traffic. The bike lane is in the gutter and next to it is a set of flimsy plastic markers that separate it from the parking lane. Next to that are three one way travel lanes.

After a few minutes on hold I was connected to a “planning production coordinator” I’ll call Steve. I told Steve that I was planning on doing a shoot on Spring street at 6th street. I told him there is a bike lane and asked if I needed to do anything special to use the bike lane for parking. Steve told me that the permit would be, “treated as a lane closure just like any other closure.” What Steve was alluding to here is that in order close a lane you are supposed to put up lane closure signage and hire off duty police officers (not just a security guard) to sit around and monitor the closure.

Continuing, Steve added that, “Bikes are vehicles.” He noted that there is parking next to the bike lane and that if I wanted to use that parking he thought that I would need to close the bike lane.

When I asked Steve if I had to do anything special to close a bike lane he seemed a bit confused. He said that I would need a barricade. He was unsure if I would need to do a detour (I’ll note that in years of riding past film locations here in Los Angeles I have never seen a proper detour for cyclists). Steve told me that my permit to close the lane would cost $312. I asked if I had to get off duty cops. He said he needed to check on that and put me on hold. He returned to the call a few moments later and told me, “yeah you have to get a closure and two off duty officers.”

I could tell from the call when Steve noted that “Bikes are vehicles,” that FilmLA must have fielded some complaints. I also confirmed, what I suspected, that shoots that close a bike lane are supposed to hire off-duty or retired police officers. Curiously, most of these unformed and armed “police officers” no longer have peace officer status. It’s a cushy job for a retired cop who just sits around on top of a motorcycle all day with the occasional break to visit the craft services tent.

In practice, a lot of film shoots skirt the rules Steve outlined for me. Many don’t have the required retired “officers” on hand and just have a security guard sitting in a folding chair looking at their phone. And a lot of production companies make use of parking without the required lane closure permit, which seems to me cheap at $312. And as I said before, I have never seen a detour for a bike lane, no doubt, because that would take away lane space from cars and result in complaints. Without the detour you’re forced to veer into traffic, a maneuver that can be a potentially fatal, real life version of Frogger.

In my childhood and up through the early aughts, this stretch of Spring Street was a ghost town, it’s collection of handsome 1920s office buildings making it a convenient stand-in for New York. Now people live, work, shop and eat there and, increasingly, travel by foot, bike and scooters. The constant filming has, long since, become a nuisance. At the same time states and municipalities around the country compete to offer race-to-the-bottom incentives and tax breaks to lure film companies away from expensive cities like Los Angeles and New York. Many friends and neighbors work in the film business and depend on local jobs to make a living so I appreciate the need to facilitate film permits.

Scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend.

But we are also staring down the barrel of a climate catastrophe and need to do everything we can to make riding a bike or taking public transit safe and reliable. And Los Angeles’ notorious congestion no longer makes car travel practical except in off hours. The first, easy first step our local pseudo-woke politicians could make to address climate change and congestion would simply be to solve this problem by keeping what few bike lanes we have open and safe. Put up a detour for cyclists if you have to close a bike lane. What’s the big deal about that?

Complaints about blocked bike lanes have fallen on deaf ears for too long, and thanks to the fact that the film industry wields enormous influence on local politicians through campaign contributions and seats on the boards of predominant charities and non-profit institutions, I’m pessimistic that this small issue will ever be addressed. Until I see un-blocked bike lanes I’m going to start calling our local elected officials and the film industry bosses what they are: climate change deniers.

GM and the Red Cars

A brief post this morning as I’m obsessed with completing the Stickley #336 reproduction I’m working on in the garage, a project that has narrowly avoided firewood status at a few points.

My post on Lyft, prompted an email from a friend from grad school, Nic Sammond to note that I should have mentioned General Motor’s alleged destruction of the street cars in Los Angeles and other American cities in the mid 20th century. Not being a historian, I’m not going to delve into the complex story of GM’s disruption of the streetcar business. But Nic makes a good point about noting the connections between Silicon Valley’s technological forays into transportation and GM’s role in wrecking those streetcars.

It reminds me of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, a book that haunts me every day. In it Fisher describes describes how we all seem to be unable to imagine a future that’s not some dystopian, privatized nightmare of the sort imagined in the 2006 film Children of Men. When I see charts like the one above, taken from a Los Angeles Department of Transportation report, I can’t help but think of Fisher’s book and what Nic suggested, that we might be repeating the mistakes of the past and selling our future to short term corporate interests. We would do well to work on changing this trajectory.