Now that the weather in Los
Angeles has gone from pleasant to perfect with the subtle advent of
spring, I've been spending more time risking my life atop my bicycle as
I wend my way to meetings and errands. As a faithful urbanist I have
little trouble convincing myself of cycling's merits, which, as former
California State Health Officer Dr. Richard Jackson likes to say, can
"improve your life span, lower your blood pressure, make you better
looking, improve your sex life, and save you money." Sounds good to
But Dr. Jackson's catalog of virtues is complicated by, among other things, crumpled pavement, oblivious drivers, cramped roadways, ridicule, and perspiration. In Europe, where they do things better, cycles have their own lanes on the sidewalks (not in the streets -- duh) and even their own traffic signals, thus allowing men and women, young and old to pedal to their hearts' content through the central cores of Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, and, of course, Copenhagen.
While a few Americans are having sexy time in Portland and Boulder, most American cities couldn't embrace cycling even if they wanted to. Sidewalks are not wide enough (unless we get rid of devil strips), and most traffic and parking lanes are spoken for. But inappropriate infrastructure isn't really the problem. Focusing on infrastructure in the first place is the problem. The visceral thrill that planners and captains of industry get from pouring concrete and erecting things -- no matter how ugly or useless -- has led to the assumption that all solutions must be material solutions. But, as with so many other problems that only seem to be grounded in the built environment, safer, more pleasant cycling should start with more ephemeral reforms.
I am the furthest thing from a gearhead. My regular destinations include the gym, Starbucks, the bank, and maybe the beach. But from these modest transits I have come up with a few common-sense programs and attitudinal shifts that could, every so often, get a few more intrepid souls out of their cars and on to their bikes.
The Cycle-Industrial Complex: Not all corporations are evil. Corporations are only as evil as their products, which is why I don't like General Motors, Northrop Grumman, or Juicy Couture. But if it's Trader Joe's, Sanrio, or Schwinn, bring it on. Schwinn's parent company, Dorel Industries, posted $100 million in profits in 2007. Given that it costs only $1.3 million to buy the presidency and prompt the invasion of a nation, Doral and its competitors could make a fortune and do the world some good by paying off lobbying politicians to promote bicycle-friendly projects and policies. If it worked for the railroads in the 19th century and the auto companies in the 20th, why not the bicycle companies in the 21st?
Sartorial Infrastructure: Albert Einstein notwithstanding, one of the greatest impediments to practical cycling centers not on roads but on threads. The ride from my apartment to the bus that would take me to work is a half-mile downhill. In a business suit, it might as well be 1,000 miles of open ocean. Decorum and social convention dictate that many people cannot ride a bike to work under any circumstances, but I would hope that America's vaunted business culture will, someday, become relaxed enough to allow employees and executives alike to dress in such a way as to send a few fewer dollars to Saudi Arabia.
Temporary Urbanism: Most cities have some kind of half-assed "bicycle boulevard" or "bike route." Inexplicably, these routes sometimes amount to no more than few signs. If we're lucky, we get bike lanes. In a perfect world, however, cities would reserve entire streets for bicycles. Cars could have major thoroughfares, and then smaller parallel streets (perhaps residential streets) could serve only bicycles (with accommodations for local access, etc.). Such a transformation would require little more than PR, signage, and paint, but it's a pipe dream because locals would invariably oppose such an outrageous deviation from the comfort of the inanity to which we are accustomed. But here's a compromise: Cities could institute bicycle streets on a temporary basis, once per week, or once per month. Whereas infrastructure is scary because it is expensive and permanent, a fiat to prohibit cars on certain streets (or even certain lanes -- one lane of parking would suffice) on certain days would be a reasonable compromise in an age when compromise is rare and a field in which permanence is next to godliness. But if it can work for farmers markets and 5K races, then it might work for commuting. Furthermore, these occaisional occurances would be events that cyclists could plan for, and it would create the sort of crtitical mass that the Critical Mass folks are trying to promote.
Partial Urbanism: I said I wasn't going to fetishize infrastructure, but, then again, paint isn't quite in the same league as concrete and rebar. The width of one parking lane corresponds to two opposing lanes of bike traffic. Engineers seem to have a fetish for symmetry, but the elimination of a single parking lane on one side of a street can result in an entire bike lane. Depending how it was striped and signed, it could even apply only during certain hours or, as mentioned above, certain days.
Bike n' Bus: If you want people in L.A. to think you're crazy, tell them that you take the bus. And if you really want them to think you're crazy, tell them that you bike to work. Lunacy nothwithstanding, Los Angeles's one true triumph is in equipping all local buses with bike racks, which mean that as long as you're willing to take the risk, you can go pretty much anywhere in the city. Of course, this requires combating the double stigma of cycling and riding the bus -- which is a fate worse than death for your average member of the urban bourgeoisie. Yet again, though, the solutions are close at hand for anyone with even the slightest sense of adventure and social responsibility.
Bike Racks: Duh. For the cost of one parking space in every apartment building, minimall, and office building in L.A., everyone who has ever dreamed of cylcing would have a place to park. And, no, I won't hit your Mercedes.
The Cool Factor: This is one PR campaign that all the spin in the world probably couldn't win. Prisses in Bentley coupes and tough guys in raised pickup trucks will always think cyclists are hopelessly lame. But with gas topping $4 and congestion thickening, cyclists just have to keep in mind who the real douchebags rugged invididualists are.