Finals, the holidays, bicycle repairs, and my day job have intervened but I’m finally back at the keyboard after all these weeks.
Over Thanksgiving my girlfriend and I got to spend several days in the Bay Area. Naturally (given my special interests) we spent a lot of time checking out the local transportation systems. My notes follow. The main conclusion I reached is simple however: It’s not just me. Los Angeles really sucks compared to San Franscisco.
Wednesday: The Trip Up
Just making the trip posed some difficulties. We rejected plane travel almost immediately. I read Ed Begley’s book Living Like Ed a couple months ago and he makes some damning points. Not only do jets get horrible millage per person, but they release all sorts of nasty pollutants into the upper atmosphere. I didn’t want that on my conscience.
A train ride would have been ideal, but when I entered our times on the Amtrak site I was horrified. The only trip I could find in our time window involved multiple bus transfers and would have taken at least 10 hours. What is WRONG with Amtrak these days? Maybe things will get better some day if we manage to build the high speed rail. I know I’ll ride it.
In the end we settled on driving my girlfriend’s VW. Even after wrestling with the moral objections to driving an automobile almost 900 miles, we ran into trouble on I-5 (hardly unusual on our ridiculously ill-designed interstate freeway system). A truck ahead of us tore down power lines and shut down all four lanes. It took us three hours to detour around it on a series of muddy farm roads. Several other cars tried to pull off onto the shoulder and got stuck. For all I know, they’re still there.
We finally approached the city just in time to be stuck in rush hour traffic. We did finally reach our destination-a few blocks from the BART station in San Leandro. We badly need good rail service between LA and SF. I don’t want to have to do this every year.
Thursday: Thanksgiving Day in San Leandro
While dinner was cooking I got to spend some time walking around the town of San Leandro (we had to do some last minute grocery shopping). Small houses, close to rail transit, plenty of stores and restaurants within easy walking distance…its my kind of place. Of course, the clerk at Von’s was completely flabbergasted when we asked to put our purchases in a day pack instead of a plastic bag, but you get that everywhere.
My girlfriend’s family lives right next to the Zap electric vehicle dealership. No one hates cars more than I. If you’re going to have them, though, they might as well be small, electric, and chartreuse. I was a little puzzled by the presence of a Hummer in the used car part f the lot. A trade-in, one hopes?
Friday: Marin County
Marin County is one of the few places in California where life actually makes sense. By this I mean that there are more trees than buildings, more bike trails than roads, and when you go to a coffee house you’re encouraged to bring your own cup. We spent most of Friday getting a complete tour from some friends of ours who moved up there earlier this year. Leave it to me to be in Mill Valley without a mountain bike.
The only drawback I can see to the town is the lack of a rail connection. Then again…you can ride your bike right to the fairy and head to the city, so I suppose it really isn’t a problem.
If you every make it to Mill Valley I would unreservedly recommend Avatar’s Punjabi Burritos, which makes some of the best Indian fast food I’ve had in years (and I live in LA so I know).
Several of my less bike-literate friends have asked me to explain this latest trend in bicycles. Basically, I would define an “urban bike” as any bicycle that survives in the urban environment. This is tougher than it sounds because the hazards are many. A bike that somehow avoids being stolen might be destroyed by or quickly discarded because it is too heavy, too slow, or too temperamental for commuting use. In a moment, I will explain three different takes on the concept (including my own). Always keep in mind, however, that the bike that works for you is always the perfect bike. I currently belong to a bike club at work. There are about 5 active members and no two of us have bikes that similar. All of these bikes are ridden in group rides every week however in places like East LA, Hollywood, and Whittier. By my rule, they are all “urban” bikes because they work for their riders.
When the bicycle industry talks about urban bikes, they usually mean a kind of all-around bicycle. These bikes are a bit lighter than a mountain bike, a bit sportier than a comfort bike, and cheaper than most road bikes. The bars are usually flat, the forks are usually rigid, and the tires are medium wide. Actually, I think this sort of bike has much to recommend it. For the last two decades most bikes sold in this country have been mountain bikes that were ridiculously unsuited to city riding. I can think of few things sillier than riding a full suspension mountain bike in the city. Most people will rarely go on single track and are best served by a simple all-around bike.
There is another paradigm which comes not from the bike companies, but from the bike subculture itself. Bicycle messengers have been common in North American cities for many years. Many of them started out with more-or less stock road and mountain bikes. As time passed however, they created a very distinctive style of bike. In the last few years many of younger riders who have never worked as messengers have adopted this style. In general, these bikes are built on light-weight frames, usually steel (the better to survive the inevitable wrecks). They tend to have drop bars, or sometimes “bull horns”. Quick release wheels and seat post clamps are shunned because they make it too easy to steel parts off the bike. A front brake is considered optional. A rear break is considered a nuisance. Most importantly of all, these bikes are single-speed or, even more commonly, fixed gear. Dérailleurs are simply not considered worth the weight, expense, and hassle.
Urban fixed gear bikes are highly optimized for aggressive riding in the thick of inner-city traffic. Their riders tend to have a high level of physical fitness and technique (or else they don’t last long in that kind of riding anyway). They are certainly not appropriate for all riders. However, if you are an advanced cyclist who regularly needs to get around a downtown area in a hurry, you should probably check into them.
A few months ago, when I felt recuperated enough from my injuries to begin riding again, I was faced with the need to choose a bike. I have owned dozens of them over the years and worked on hundreds for other people, so I had a pretty good idea of what I needed. Unfortunately, I had one big constraint: I only had about $100 to blow. Lucky for me, I almost immediately found an early ’90s Nishiki at the goodwill for $30. I repacked all the bearings, put cushy commuter tires on it, and chopped the original steel bars into bull horns, and threw away the back brake (it drags on the new tires and I never use it anyway). I had enough money left over to get a good pair of break levers and some bar tape. (I put on both levers so it wouldn’t look lopsided).
My bike doesn’t look like much (a big plus, because bike thieves are less likely to notice it). I have been very happy with it, however. It keeps up quite easily with my friend’s nice road bikes, not to mention Hollywood traffic. My only beef is that, at 25.5 lbs, it is a little heavy to carry up subway staircases. I plan to swap on more allow components as time goes on. So far, I have resisted the urge to convert it to a single speed/fixed gear. I can’t say what will happen as I get in better shape, however.
I realize that my answer to the original question of “what is an urban bike” lacks brevity. I hope, though, that I have at least demonstrated the range of possibilities within the class.
In 2006 I was a casualty of war. The war I refer to is the struggle of ordinary people like me against the forces of big oil and the automotive companies and the car culture they have created to enslave humanity. I dared to walk along an American road and was run down and crippled by the enemy, a car. Ironically I, who have been car light or car free since I was 15, was forced to use a car extensively for the next two years because of my injuries. Only recently have I returned to the bicycle as my primary means of transportation (supplemented by trains and the bus). The war goes on. I am back on active duty. I still think we can win.
I am not speaking metaphorically. This is a real war. Many people on both sides have been killed by one of mans deadliest weapons—the automobile. Real violence erupts all the time. In the last two weeks two drivers have screamed threats of bodily harm at me because they resented the fact that I was driving in traffic. Even though my left arm is still crippled, I realized that it was my duty to stand and fight. Luckily, they proved less willing than me to suffer physical injury for their beliefs. Had they had superiority of numbers I’m sure I would have suffered a severe beating.
In the last few weeks I have been trying to assess the direction of transportation activism in this country. I’m pleased to see that the ranks of bicycle activists, transportation reformers, and mass transit advocates have swollen in the wake of the latest gas crises. Terrific! They are my brothers in arms and I salute them. Unfortunately, their strategies are critically flawed.
The usual argument goes like this: “If we improve mass transit, build bike paths, improve the bikes themselves, and educate people about fitness then they will all abandon their cars and flock to our side.” This will not work. Here in Los Angeles we have one of the largest and biggest bus and subway systems in the country, yet LA is the very heartland of the evil car culture. Bike paths are great for a nice Sunday morning ride, but they don’t tend to go to any of the places we work or shop or live. Bikes are already awesome. People are lazy. As long as cars are cheap and assessable they are going to drive them. The fact that they are destroying the planet and endangering the lives of themselves and their neighbors will always be secondary to their own comfort and convenience.
The the only way to fight the car culture is a head-on attack. The only way to eliminate cars from the road is to make them hard to acquire, expensive to drive, and eventually illegal to own or produce. In my next few entries I will explore ways to attack the car culture. Few of them will be easy. In fact, most of them will take a lot of time, money, and courage. This is a real war, remember?
I also reserve the right to slip in a few useful bicycle or woodworking shop tips and perhaps an amusing fire sprinkler anecdote or two—just to lighten the mood.