Moms On Bikes

Kelly and I spent a good part of the week going through boxes of old photos and found this one of my mom giving me a ride on her bike. I’m guessing this must be sometime around 1968. My mom liked to ride bikes, an unusual activity for adults in Southern California in the 1960s. She took me all over Culver City this way until one day when we took a tumble, probably caused by a pothole. I vaguely recall a long haired and bearded young man helping us off the pavement (that I can remember “hippies” shows how old I am). None of us were injured but it shook up my mom enough that she didn’t bike after that accident.

I found this photo on the same day that I read a sad story in the New York Times about a sharp increase in bike and pedestrian accidents in the past few years. And just last week, here in Los Angeles, a child was killed in a crosswalk due to a driver being “blinding by the early morning sun.” Like so much of the bloodshed on our roads the driver will, likely, face no consequences.

The mayhem on our streets has, ironically, scared me back into driving more and biking less. I know a lot of my fellow cyclists feel the same way. There are too many SUVs, too much texting, too many angry drivers and too little concern from our corrupt elected officials.

We are living in a time of climate, economic and political crisis. If we care about the children in this world who are the age I was in this photo, we need to all stand up and make a difference. We need bike lanes, road diets, bus only lanes, public housing and we need to ask our elected leaders not to take any money from fossil fuel and automotive interests. The minor inconveniences we will have to put up with in a transition to a walkable and bikable future are small compared with the rising seas, fires and climate-based refugee crises our children will face.

Our Hot Streets Are an Opportunity

I can’t remember where I got this idea from but I think it was Alissa Walker or someone she was writing about who had the bright idea to go out and check the temperature of our streets on a hot day with a IR thermometer. Since I have one of these handy gadgets for firing up my pizza oven, I thought I’d head out in the neighborhood at around 2:30 in the afternoon and take some temperature readings.

The asphalt in front of our house measured an egg-frying, temperature of 135.3º F (57.3 C).

A rare, tree-lined Los Angeles street one block over was a lot cooler at 80.9º F (27.1º C).

A few blocks north, and to much fanfare, our city coated an asphalt street with a gray coating as part of a “cool pavement” program. The temp on this street was 120.8º F (49.3º C).

Being a crank I have two conclusions:

1. Let’s plant trees.

2. How about instead of painting streets gray we do something really radical and pull them up entirely and start cooling people rather than serving cars?

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Recent research has found that when manufacturing emissions are taken into account, most cool pavements hurt the climate more than they help.”

So, as is typical for our mayor Eric Garcetti it’s all about the press conference and not so much about the actual science. The one glimmer of hope that I have is that people younger than myself are catching on to the empty gestures of neo-liberal, pseudo-environmental politicians like Garcetti and the rest of the Los Angeles City Council. They are beginning to see a more radical alternative to business as usual. As Mark Fisher says in a book everyone should read, Capitalist Realism Is There No Alternative?,

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

So how about we tear a hole in these hot streets and plant some trees?

Hey New York Times Let’s Dump the Wheels Column

“Sacrifices to the Modern Moloch” a cartoon in the New York Times published January 1922.

Dear New York Times editors, you need to retire your “Wheels” column. At the very least you need to insert, in all automobile coverage, a disclaimer that cars cause climate change, asthma, lung cancer and over 1.2 million deaths around the world every year due to “accidents.” The ghost of your fellow New Yorker Jane Jacobs would also add ugliness and the death of communities, thanks to the insatiable hunger for space cars claim in our urban spaces. Failing to point out these objective facts makes your auto columns little more propaganda.

Where is your bike column? Where is your transit advice column? Where is your walk-ability coverage? Sure, you touch on these issues elsewhere but these subjects have no dedicated column like “Wheels.” Perhaps it’s time to start treating cars the way you might treat cigarettes. NYT editors, would you have a weekly column devoted to reviewing cigarettes? One could easily imagine such a column. I’m sure some cigarettes taste better than others. You’d also have a lot of vape devices (the Teslas of smoking) to review. But I’m guessing you won’t debut a “Smokes” column in the near future.

Taking the cigarette analogy further, your hypothetical “Smokes” column would be wise not to blame smokers for their addiction. Just like those tobacco CEOs, there are real villains in the auto addiction story. While I bike and take public transit I live in a city (Los Angeles) that yoked its future to the automobile in the 1920s. Mostly out of fear for my safety, I’m forced to drive more than I would like by the way the city is designed. So I don’t buy the “we’re all at fault” argument. As Hannah Arendt said, “When all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.”

German diplomats awarding The Grand Cross of the German Eagle to Henry Ford, Detroit, 1938.

If we’re looking for who to blame we might begin with Henry Ford. Adolf Hitler kept a framed portrait of Ford on his wall and mentions him by name in Mein Kampf, “Every year makes them [American Jews] more and more the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions . . . Only a single great man, Ford, to their fury still maintains full independence.” Ford returned the favor by publishing a virulently racist and anti-Semitic newspaper that, among other editorial atrocities, serialized a set of articles entitled “The International Jew.” And the Nazi leadership’s ideology was inspired by the worst aspects of Fordism: the alienation of workers and the suppression of unions and democracy.

Speaking of Nazis, you’ve spent the past week breathlessly covering the pre-auction and post auction-kerfufle of the first Porsche. If I were the editor I would have insisted on a paragraph detailing the fact that the Porsche company went on to use Polish slave labor during WWII. Those laborers had a “P” sewn on their uniforms and that “P” stood for “Poland” not Porsche. And would it be snarky to include a paragraph about the tackiness of today’s oligarchs bidding millions on a Nazi car?

I have a proposal. How about a livable cities column? We have a terrific writer here in LA who covers alternative transportation named Alissa Walker. You should hire her and put your auto columnists on a bike in LA to see how it feels. I have an extra bike and helmet . . .

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.