In the past month, I have added one more transportation mode to my arsenal: a 150cc Taiwanese motor-scooter. I dragged my feet for some time before going motorized. During the past ten months of living with no car, though, I realized that I had a lot of trouble with trips of between 15 and 50 miles. They were too far to ride my bicycle (if i wanted to get there on time and/or carry any amount of cargo). They were too short to justify borrowing or renting a car. If the train went close, then no problem. A lot of trips around here are only served by bus, however. Here in Southern California, a thirty mile trip across town can cross the territories of three or more transit authorities. Just working out the transfers was a headache.
Even after realizing that I needed some sort of motorized transportation, I spent several months researching various forms of powered bicycles. Electric bikes are cheap to recharge and low maintenance. Unfortunately, the good ones are expensive. Also, the batteries wear out after a couple of years. During this period, I wrote a rather chilling research paper about the environmental problems of recycling batteries. Too, few e-bikes can much faster than 30 mph–fine for downtown, but too slow to keep up with traffic in OC and the South Bay.
Next, I looked at gas powered bicycle conversions. They are much cheaper than e-bikes. I could have gotten everything I needed to convert a beach cruiser for about $250. If I was willing to cheat a little on engine displacement, I could probably build a 50 mph motorized bicycle. The only problem was, I have already owned one. I remember it as a noisy vehicle with poor handling at speed, with inadequate brakes and tires that wore out as fast as I could change them.
From an environmental point of view, motorized bicycles have engines about the same size as motorscooters. Because they have no transmission, however, they are inherently less efficient. Thus, they tend to burn more gas to travel the same distance. They also have more lenient smog requirements, so they tend to pollute more.
I was already considering some kind of scooter when I went to Thailand on vacation. In Thailand nearly everyone rides scooters. They use them to carry passengers and cargo in all kinds of weather conditions, everywhere from the freeways of Bangkok to remote country roads. Needless to say, I resolved to buy an Asian-style scooter as soon as I got home.
The most popular scooter in Thailand is the Honda Dream, which has large wheels and uses Honda’s famous 125cc GY6 engine. Unfortunately, Honda no longer sells Dreams in the US. Luckily, Kymco (who used to build scooters for Honda) makes several GY6 based bikes which are quite similar. I settled on their People 150. I decided that, since I am a bit larger than the average Thai, it was reasonable to choose the next larger GY6.
So far, I have been fairly happy with the Kymco. It does a splendid job of the mission for which I purchased it. I can load it up with ten bags of groceries, and still keep up with traffic. It does not take up much more parking space than a bicycle. The only problems I have had so far have been mechanical. It stalls inexplicably when running. Vapor lock, perhaps? I have had it apart three times now, but I am sure I will find the problem soon.
The real question, of course, is weather it is morally acceptable to buy a combustion vehicle. I have wrestled with this one, and concluded that it is a necessary compromise. A small scooter still has far less environmental impact than a car. Having the scooter allows me to borrow cars less often. Sure, I would like to live in a city where it was practical to get everywhere by bicycle and train. Los Angeles, however, is a city that was designed for driving. As long as I am stuck here, I think I will need to keep the scooter.
Its been more than six months and I still do not own an automobile.
The other thing that has not changed, is that I am still horrible at posting regularly to this blog. The problem is not a lack of material. Believe me, I have not problem coming up with a rant about transportation. The problem is that they usually occur to me when I am in the middle of traffic on Sunset Boulevard at 5:30 on a Friday night–not the best writing conditions. By the time I get home, I am so tired and glad to be alive that I forget to blog.
Luckily, all of this should change soon. I just went back to school. Given that I will be in front of my laptop for over 20 hours a week, doing anything to avoid typing my assigned essays, I can confidently say that more blog posts will be forthcoming.
Here in LA traffic jams have become a sort of a tradition on the first week in May. That is, worse traffic jams than usual. Immigrants and laborers stream on the streets to demonstrate for their “rights”, blocking downtown traffic for hours. It poses no problem, of course, for people like me who travel by bicycle, but all of those crowds lead one to start thinking about immigrants and the working class in general .
I can sympathize with immigrants rights. My own people were poor Irish farmers who worked like dogs for the first hundred years they were here before finally breaking into the middle class. I am not sure how much help they should get from the government; we did not get any help at all and we did alright. That is a civil rights issue, however, and this blog is about transportation policy.
There is one observation I can make about working class immigrants which is apropos to my topic: they tend to be completely apathetic about the environment. I need to make a disclaimer. All of the statements I am about to make are based on completely anecdotal evidence. I have a feeling, however, that the statistics would bear me out.
During the week I usually spend the night in the town of La Habra, California. It is not a place I would ever have chosen to live, except that it happens to be where my office is located. It is a solidly working class town with a majority Hispanic population. Most of the town was designed in the 1950’s which means that the whole town is functionally obsolete. In other words, it is almost an exact carbon copy of every other working class neighborhood in Southern California.
The inhabitants of La Habra are completely and totally oblivious to environmental concerns. Every restaurant serves drinks in Styrofoam cups. No business has bike racks: most of them have “No Bicycles” signs prominently displayed. Everyone drives the biggest SUVs they can afford. Bringing your own bags to the grocery store is likely to get you stared at blankly. Riding in the slow lane of any of the major streets causes people to scream profanity at you and tell you to “get on the sidewalk where you belong.”
As bad as the situation is, the really sad thing is that none of the population sees anything wrong. Its as if they just have not been paying attention to the news for the last twenty years. In La Habra (and all of the other towns like it) it is still 1989.
The middle class in North America is already changing their lifestyles, but the working class is not with the program at all. Considering that there is now more of them than their is of us, it is becoming imperative that we get through to them. How do we do this? Environmental ads on ESPN? Spanish language flyers? Maybe critical mass bike rides down La Habra boulevard? I have no idea.
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.