Where is the Vast Liberal Conspiracy When You Really Need It?

Last Sunday, I dropped by KCRW’s presentation, the one pumped as Reinventing the Wheel:the Future of Mobility in LA, which I must admit I approached with an undisguised misgiving in my heart. My fear was that it would be yet another view of the future through the windshield perspective.

This feeling was but magnified when the “ample bike parking” they touted on their website turned out to comprise precisely six (6) racks, providing room to lock a grand total of twelve (12) bicycles. Two of those were behind an outlying building a circuitous quarter-mile or so from the actual event gate, and were empty when I finally found them during my Grand Bike Parking Survey after I left the hall. There were dozens and dozens of bicycles there—invitations had gone out to almost every local bicycle organization, and LACBC was there, along with Linus Bikes and a few purveyors of electric motorcycles disguised as bicycles. So it was irritating to see hordes of bikes locked to railings, trees, poles, and parking meters all around the venue:

Also disquieting was the prominence granted to Art Center College of Design on said website. Art Center has traditionally supplied the US automobile industry with most of its car stylists.

So I was disappointed, though not surprised, when the first thing I saw upon entering the hall was a car, dominating the passageway:

An electric car, but so what? Bad as air pollution, resource drawdown, and Global Warming are, even cars that ran on magic would still wreak havoc with the land and our communities, because cars just take up too damn much room for what they do! Sprawl is as deleterious to life on both the grand and intimate scales as Global Warming.

To paraphrase a line from an old blurb of my own, titled Methadone for Road Hogs:

Go stand over the Hollywood Freeway at rush hour and imagine that all the cars you see there are electrically or fuel-cell powered. Then go into the parking lot at the mall and imagine the same thing about the rows and rows of Hondas and Chevys there. They have all been suddenly changed into zero-emission vehicles. What’s different about the scene? That’s right: NOTHING!

Maybe the problem isn’t what type of cars we drive. Maybe the problem is cars.

Cars as cars are destroying our health, our watersheds, our communities. It doesn’t matter how they are powered; they still cause vast damage.

And of course, rarely does the juice for plug-in electrics come from wind, solar, or hydro; those cars pollute, just somewhere else.

So I was pissed. But, I says to myself, maybe it gets better in the actual hall. Where the first thing I saw was…you guessed it: another car!

After casting about like an aging bloodhound for a while, I did find some bicycles…half-hidden behind—yes!—more cars:

The free beer having run out before I arrived, I turned my attention to the Panel of Authoritative Persons, two of whom even had the English accents that seem to be mandatory for acceptance into faux-progressive forums such as this one. The sound was muddled by reverberation and somewhat reminiscent of announcements on an airport PA system, but it certainly seemed that the panel started off with long, nostalgic reminiscences of the Good Old Days when LA’s freeways were new and relatively uncrowded and one could drive about aimlessly for hours with the top down. This should not have been surprising to me, and it wasn’t…because, according to the website, the panel comprised:

  • Geoff Wardle: “Educated first as a vehicle engineer and then as an automotive designer at the Royal College of Art in London, Geoff has had extensive experience as a professional vehicle designer across four continents and remains a passionate car enthusiast.”

  • Craig Hodgetts, who brought to the table “a broad-ranging background in automotive design, theater and architecture.”

  • Harold Belker, described as “a force of nature in the area of automotive design with a list of design credits that include the Smart Car, the Batmobile for Warner Bros. Batman and Robin film, and the futuristic cars of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report including the sporty red Lexus.”

  • Michael Lejeune, “Creative Director for Metro Los Angeles” and the lone, beleagured representative of mass transit on the panel.

So really, what could one expect?

Well, one could expect a lot more from a prominent and supposedly progressive entity such as KCRW pretending to discuss mobility in Los Angeles.

But the truth is that you’ll do much better reading bike shop blogs.

Which, I am glad to see, you’re already doing.

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  1. Harv
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    All this nonsense can put under the heading of, “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic”. The cars shown here remind me of the long forgotten days of econo-boxes like the Datsun 1200, and the microcars like the Honda 369 and 600, BMW Isetta and the Messerschmitt. Those deck chairs were tossed overboard by all
    red-blooded American drivers to make way for the next arrangement which was pick-up trucks with camper shells which became SUVs. Those deck chairs were
    much heavier and the Titanic’s trip to Davy Jones’ locker became shorter.

    As you said, electric cars just move the pollution elsewhere while taking far more resources to construct and place such a burden on the electrical grid (while recharging) that widespread use of these cars would crash the system, which is marginal at best right now. Additional power generating stations take decades
    to plan, design, and build nowadays and would still require fossil fuels to run. There is simply no future here either.

    Logic and reason tell us that the real main transportation of the future is human powered, maybe with electrical assistance. A proper display would have included regular city bicycles, cargo bikes, and velomobiles. But this is the USA where such devices are unthinkable, ridiculous, and not worthy of any amount of consideration except by the Lunatic Fringe. So we at the LF keep chipping away at transportation sanity while the Titanic and its deck chairs fulfill their death wish.

  2. Bryan Matsumoto
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Yes, but there’s so much less MONEY to be made if people don’t have cars. Actually not true, the money freed up could go to making a better city for all… Sheesh I’ll drop an email to KCRW. talk about backwards. Thanks for the insight. I agree all the innovation in cars is just a distraction from what car culture has done to the way we live.

  3. Luke
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I attended this forum as well, with the same nagging concerns going into it that you had. Even though the promoters stated upfront that it was near the Metro Expo Line Culver City station, the “directions” section only provided driving directions and said nothing about getting to the event using Metro.

    And then the panel largely pondered magical cars that, frankly, have been the subject of decades of pondering already. LeJeune was sadly out of place on a panel of architects and engineers, and a more appropriate rep from Metro would have been someone like the director of planning. And even LeJeune said things like “no one is going to give up their car in LA,” which to a room filled largely with bicyclists just made Metro look pretty darn awful and shortsighted.

    Frankly, I’ve been considering giving KCRW a piece of my mind on this, and your blog post gave me the push to do that – thanks!

  4. Kent Strumpell
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    How disappointing. Glad I didn’t waste my time attending. Yes, this could have been much more relevant to the future we really need. There are numerous cutting edge fields with eager spokespeople that could have been enlisted, including the aforementioned human-powered options, elevated bikeway concepts, “personal mobility” type train systems, a broad range of transportation demand management techniques and of course community design that provides access with minimal mobility. The event organizers really didn’t do much homework at all.

  5. Bennett Stein
    Posted May 23, 2014 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    Gee, what a long and downtrodden critique, Mr. Risemberg. A few thoughts: you should organize, select guests, and produce panels of your own devise to your exact specifications; to pick on every aspect of an event that is simply trying to launch a conversation, an inquiry, about transportation in LA does not contribute to that conversation; you are, sir, in denial that LA was for many many decades the capital of cars on earth, cars that represented American ideals, sure call them delusions, but for many LA was considered the American heart of freedom, and that LA is all about behaving free, and living free, in a so called free society because a person could jump in their gas guzzling car (mainly from the 1940s to the 1990s) in LA – this was for decades the main meme of LA, CARS were the crux of the LA biscuit; LA has never ever ever been a bicycle town; there are now thousands of the next wave of citizenry in LA who are trying to change LA from a car to a bike town, yes, sir, you betchya; you complain about all the hybrid and electric cars on display at Sunday’s KCRW/Helms Bakery event – good for you for ignoring that we may have to effect change incrementally, in steps, in specific technological steps; good for you for being so impatient, yes, our environment, country and planet are in trouble–I too feel very impatient; good for you for insulting British people; rah rah rah, Team America, greatest country on earth, rah, rah rah, Team America, number one (in just about nothing anymore) — but good for you for putting silly old English people in their proper place, rah rah rah, you show ’em buddy, down with silly old Britain–for your information you talk like a bully, a know it all, and, oh, did I say a bully? Well, maybe your fuse is just a bit short there, fella, try a little Yoga, make sure you remember to breathe, sir; sir, your critique re: there not being enough bike parking facilities makes me want to suggest that you move to Holland or Norway or Sweden or India or NYC or Boston or Portland or Seattle where bikes are beginning to rule the road, go and live ANYWHERE but LA if you want large municipal bicycle parking structures; and finally why are you casting about for beer like an aged bloodhound? Are you so angry that you also declare yourself and agist? Good for you, insult everybody making an attempt to spark an intelligent conversation. Congratulations. In your defense, however, sir, I will endeavor to try and think about the few cogent arguments you make, once I can sort through your bullying, nagging comments that bring down the whole tenor of your diatribe.

    Keep in mind the point of last Sunday was to encourage the 70% of Angelenos who drive alone to consider other options, from tiny electric cars like the Toyota on display that you saw on entering through to bicycles, eBikes and not yet produced vehicles by the designers of tomorrow. KCRW was not offering a bicycle advocacy rally. Hey, buddy, you know what really gets me ticked. Not a single speaker on Sunday even mentioned the word, JETPACK. We were promised JETPACKS years ago. I bring that up as something you yourself forgot to mention. All the best,

    A fellow citizen

  6. Posted May 23, 2014 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Ah, Bennett, I’ve lived in LA nearly sixty years, driven hundreds of thousands of miles through it in motorcars, and tens of thousands more on motorcycles, and have a slight idea of what the LA you speak about was like, and what it intended–as well as its severe limitations and, well, delusions, to use your own very appropriate word.

    I’ve also bicycled through it since the 1970s, and used both the old, intentionally-crappy transit system, and the new considerably better but still developing one. I was, in my misdirected youth, an internal engine mechanic, so I was in the heart of the business. I’ve been studying and publishing articles and papers on sustainable development for nearly twenty years, and write on the matter not just for bike blogs but for rags such as the Los Angeles Business Journal, whose editor occasionally pings me asking for articles.

    I also know how hard it is to put on an event. However, I was criticizing the thematic choices of the event, and the slanting of the panel to automotive solutions–that is, a gilding of past forms that have repeatedly failed–and the way it conscientiously ignored not just bicycling but the ever-more-effective transit systems being developed now.

    And are you so bitter that you can’t tell I wasn’t making fun of British people–I was for a long time a student of British literature–but of the longstanding American habit of associating an authoritative air with a British accent? This has been a minor theme in comedy for a long time now….

    Los Angeles has always used the “need for incremental change” as an excuse to do nothing. As long as the assumption is that me must accommodate cars über alles, we will not revive the vitality that LA needs to keep from becoming a mechanized Calcutta in the future. An emphasis that borders on obsession with automobiles will kill our city.

    How many more homes and businesses should be bulldozed to make room for cars?

  7. Posted May 23, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Hello Rick: DnA would agree with your critique, if it were borne out by the facts. But a show featuring two new clean-energy cars, two vintage clean-energy cars and around 20 bikes, eBikes and other alternative transit concepts, as well as the presence of LADOT, Metro and the LACBC, does not equate to a car-biased event. Here is a more accurate description of the themes, goals and content of the event:

  8. Posted May 23, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Ms, Anderton, but I don’t buy it. Twenty bikes, crammed into a back corner with the cars given pride of place, from the first display in the entrance hall to the first display in the event venue itself; three of the four panelists being car designers and “passionate car enthusiasts”; and, to add insult to injury, the article at the link you kindly provided you couldn’t even get my colleague TJ Flexer’s company name right: it’s “Orange 20 Bikes,” NOT “Core 20,” whatever that might be.

    Not just a windshield perspective, but a smeary windshield at that. Robocars are not the future of access In LA, or anywhere else. That is, if we actually want a future. DnA, for all its pomp, is just playing footsie with the past.

  9. Posted May 23, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Let’s get constructive, now, though: what would I, the Great Complainer, have done differently in your event? I’ll posit just one exhibit which I thought of off-the-cuff while eating yogurt in my kitchen just now, and which could have replaced the car in the entry hall….

    How about an interactive display showing all the mass transit routes in the city, and allowing visitors to play with it, putting in pairs of addresses to see how they could get from A to B via currently existing transit routes? This is less complicated technology than any car; in fact, cell phone apps routinely provide this service, though without the comprehensive full-area map I suggest. It could even have been structured so that visitors could “race” each other from point to point using different transit routes, since there are always options. (Indeed, I’ve found that with a bit of local knowledge I can often come up with quicker transit links than Metro’s own computers provide!) Simple analog versions of this concept have existed in every Paris and Tokyo subway station for decades; I’ve used them. It would not have been too difficult to make a grand, amusing, even “sexy” display that would show Angelenos the possibilites of car-free travel that exist right now in our city. Instead of focussing on yet more, though slightly-different, cars….

    That’s just one.

  10. Bob Davis
    Posted May 29, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Risemberg, are you the same writer who (quite a few years ago) blamed General Motors, et al. for causing the abandonment of “1400 light rail systems in the US”? If that was you, the statement gave you a “credibility gap”. In my library is a reprint of the 1924 McGraw Electric Railway Directory. There are less than a thousand railways listed, and this was near a high point in the electric railway industry. Regarding your “gilding of past forms that have repeatedly failed” comment–to some observers, especially those in the Streetsblog network, the privately owned and operated motor vehicle, is a bad idea, indeed, someone characterized the automobile as one of “History’s Worst Inventions”. But a look at any American community, other than maybe half a dozen older big cities like New York and Boston, will show that most people travel about in these maligned motorcars, and getting them to take up bicycling or public transit will be an uphill fight.

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