tensions of cycling and public transportation

Last week, I wrote briefly about my trip up to San Francisco, asking:

The city – coming from Los Angeles with foreign eyes – seems made for cyclists: Sharrows, bike lanes, well-marked bike routes, and a critical mass of people willing to ride for their commute. I have more – I think – to say, but an open question to anyone who knows the history of San Francisco’s infrastructure better than I: How did San Francisco seem to get right what Los Angeles has, to this point, gotten wrong? What has made it possible for San Francisco to seem so cycling-friendly when Los Angeles seems not?

Several people were good enough to throw out a couple of thoughts. Peter pointed out San Francisco’s relatively high density and its history of progressive politics. Alex added that San Francisco’s compact geography makes it an easier city to bike, and that LA has never really recovered from rejecting street cars. Gary echoed Peter’s comment about the density, and suggested that San Fran’s tendency to, I don’t know, mark out bike routes in a visible and useful way made the city more bike-friendly than Los Angeles. And Ryan, echoing Alex’s points, linked all of this into a larger history.

All good points, and I appreciate the thoughts.

But as I see it, there are really two conversations that could happen here: The first is what the city of Los Angeles could do to develop its cycling infrastructure – which is not, in itself, a question of public transportation; the second, however, is what precisely public transportation means.

After all, Alex noted in his comment that LA turned its back on public transportation, which isn’t entirely accurate. It’s just that LA’s public transportation system – second, in terms of total mileage, only to New York City – doesn’t actually make sense to those of us who have the time and the economic capacity to sit down and blog about biking. Most of us have cars. If we don’t, we’re of a certain income bracket where we could have a car if we wanted but don’t on principle or economics or what have you. Is public transportation what LA has now – a messy, crowded, over-subscribed way that still, in spite of everything, gets people around the city when they have no other way to get around? Or is public transportation something that might be pleasant?

For my own part, I’d love to live in a world of the latter, but we’re stuck in the present of the former, which is how we get back to bikes, because biking advocacy is not always public transportation advocacy. It could be, but it isn’t right now, in part because biking doesn’t seem like an activity that the public writ large participates in. Sure, we all bike here and there, but there’s not really a sense in Los Angeles that commuting by bike makes you part of some bigger group (in the way that, perhaps, Mini owners are encouraged to hang out with other Mini owners, or the way in which bus riders all share in something of the same bus misery).

One other thing that come to mind while I was in San Francisco: Biking seemed to appeal to a certain socioeconomic group, which stems, I think, from the way in which biking can seem something like a lifestyle choice.

But going forward, I think one of the challenges we face – as a city and as a biking community – is to figure out how to link arguments for developing cycling infrastructure to a broader social consciousness about public transportation. None of this, to be sure, is something I have an answer for, but I think we – messy and nascent culture and community that we are – have to think both about how cycling is already part of the broader public transportation agenda and the ways in which cyclists’ efforts for more infrastructure might part ways with mass transit.

After all, I used to bus a lot more before I got my bike. Getting on the bike is so much more appealing, I think, because I don’t have to share my space with anyone else, and that tension might be at the heart of these debates about cycling and public transportation as we go forward (though, as Bike Snob LA realizes, public transportation and cycling can go hand in hand).

And in the end, what do I know? I’m in Colorado now, staring out at the Rockies being overtopped by clouds heavy with snow. Happy Holidays to everyone, though I hope to be back on a bike in LA before the New Year. I’m already looking forward to it.

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2 responses to “tensions of cycling and public transportation

  1. Okay, now I’m envious as hell. Waking up in Colorado on Christmas morning is as close to heaven as I’ve ever been — or probably ever will get, for that matter.

    Enjoy the trip, and have a great holiday season.

  2. For those interested in the history of the auto industry’s influence on public infrastructure:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2486235784907931000

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