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.

Los Angeles: A New Beginning

From now on when I get triggered by a panel discussion featuring our mayor’s underlings, rather than run home and report on it I’m just going to make up what I’d have rather heard. This little imagined scenario was inspired by hearing the mayor’s current and former sustainability director spend an hour discussing pie in the sky notions that, in my cranky opinion, will never materialize. The mayor and his people seem to think that self flying vehicles are the solution to our current crisis. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to gift a LA River crayfish dinner in ten years time to the folks that prove my more down to earth climate change solutions notions wrong. So instead of waiting for that flying Uber, let’s trim the sails and plot a course for a different utopia . . .

Los Angeles, 2025
Enveloped in the white arc of a exploding battery, the mayor’s self driving electric limo careened off the road and ground to a halt along side of a mini mall convenience store at the corner of Temple and Alvarado. Who knew that the limo’s algorithms favored raccoons over human passengers?

Three hours later an autonomous ambulance pulled up.

“I’m Siri the paramedic,” said a disembodied voice emanating from a speaker next to a dirty and stained touch screen. “Are you okay?”

“Ugh. I think so,” said the mayor. “But I can’t see.”

“An Uber is being dispatched,” said the screen.

Later that evening, after a long and painful Uber ride, Garcetti awoke at KFC General Hospital. He would have many hours to reflect on his record as LA’s longest serving mayor while enjoying the ever popular Cheeto Chicken Sandwich™ that replaced the bland hospital fare of his youth. At his side was Lauren his sustainability minister.

The mayor put down his sandwich and began to stammer, “Bi, biiiiii bi biiiiii”

“What are you trying to say?” asked Lauren.

“Biiii, biii, biiii, biiiiiiiiii, biiiiicyyyyy . . .  bicycle,” said the mayor.

It was the first time in his many years as mayor that anyone had ever heard the mayor say the word.

“You mean those things kids use?” said Lauren.

“Maybe we could have protected lanes for them,” said the mayor. “That way you’d be safe and you wouldn’t get stuck in all the self driving car jams. Maybe more people would use them.”

“That’s insane. It will never happen,” replied Lauren. “I mean, it’s over 120º for most of the summer here now thanks to climate change.”

“Maybe that’s why we need ttttttt . . . trrrrrrr . . . trrreeeees . . . trees,” replied the mayor.

“What’s a tree?” asked Lauren.

“I think it’s some kind of self growing thing that makes oxygen and shade,” replied the mayor.

“Won’t they block the solar panels?” asked Lauren.

“Ba, ba, bu, buuuuuu . . . bus,” said the mayor.

“Huh? Mr. Mayor are you okay?” said Lauren.

“It’s . . . it’s like a car but carries over 100 people,” said the mayor.

“We’ll have to run that past minister Musk,” said Lauren as she gazed out the window.

“We could have lanes dedicated to buses,” blurted the mayor. “Maybe there could be affordable housing too?”

“With trees and bicycles? That’s impossible!” said Lauren. “How will we keep the coders employed?”

“Wait, who’s this minister Musk?” asked the mayor. “Is he that guy who accused a diver of being a ‘pedo’ so that he could buy some more time to make his own boy sized mini-submarine?”

“Really? He said that?” exclaimed Lauren.

“Yeah, I think that’s him,” replied the mayor. “Why the hell did I trust him so much?”

“Are you okay? Can I get you more Cheetos?” asked Lauren.

But all the Cheetos in the world wouldn’t bring the mayor back to his former self. Fredric Jameson once said, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But that’s just what the mayor began to imagine thanks to the unlikely conjunction of an algorithm and a raccoon.

He realized it was well past time to learn to dig not learn to code. It was time to build sea walls instead of apps, bus lanes instead of battery packs, affordable housing instead of Olympic villages. With all the freeways gone he was able to make room for gardens and orchards.

It was a new start. The people of LA were no longer consumers in a climate change crisis but, instead, neighbors working hard to assure their children’s bright future.

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.