Will life imitate art? In the 1979 then-futurist comedy film Americathon, a bankrupt United States of America must stage a telethon in order to raise money, or Native American leaders will get all their land back. While you’re contemplating that eventuality, consider this from the film’s opening credit sequence: The futuristic “morning rush hour” consisted of thousands of commuters on bicycles, adult tricycles, skateboards, roller skates, pedal-powered surreys… all forms of human-powered vehicles.
I was reminded of that prescient green rush hour last week when one of the Mirror’s Letters to the Editor spoke of “anger toward bike lanes”, and questioned why there must be a “car vs. bike” mentality in Santa Monica’s city planning.
I’m not certain anyone is specifically working against bikes. To its credit, the city is aware that it is behind in opening up streets to bikes. From Santa Monica’s own Sustainable City Progress Report: “There are 130 miles of arterial streets in Santa Monica. Bike lanes are designated on 13 total miles of roadway. Of these, 3.78 miles of designated bike lanes are on arterial streets. That means less than 3% of Santa Monica’s arterial streets have bike lanes, a figure which falls short of the city’s 35% target for 2010.”
What has always been right in front of our faces is that cars trump everything. In the 1940’s and 50’s American oil and rubber interests worked diligently to promote individual transportation — cars — over mass transit because that would never require the same consumption of tires and oil. Many would tell you that the existing mass transit systems of the day—buses and trolley cars—were prematurely and needlessly retired to create demand for individual autos. This was decades before we realized that SUV’s were a bill of goods meant to keep us addicted both to fossil fuel and the concept of the car as a rolling status sarcophagus.
But that was then, and this is now. Bike paths, especially nice wide safe ones, have an undeniable “If you build it, they will ride” dimension. This is not the same as claiming that bike paths will significantly reduce the constantly frustrating impacts of traffic in our own city and all of Los Angeles. But Santa Monica leads by example, or at least we try to. Our recycling efforts represent a rational effort that acknowledges that putting our plastic bottles out for pick-up does nothing about the air in China. What we accept is that we are choosing to do more right with our waste and hope that the effort required somehow pulls others along. Bike paths aren’t just a good deed that wins us stars in Sunday school: Bike paths integrated into our streets addresses a larger and more important reality than faster trips to work, and they make our city less yielding to the domination of cars.
But cars do dominate, and I don’t think we’ll see America weaned off of personal transportation in our lifetime. In year 2020 you may be driving an electric vehicle charged by a green source of energy, but you’ll still be swearing at somebody for stealing your parking space at the mall. However, the mall will offer so many forms of legalized marijuana and alcoholic yogurt that you won’t care once you’ve parked and gotten inside.
But back to the present. With the dream of owning your own home now threatened, it’s not likely that Americans will move-off the notion of individual car ownership and operation anytime soon. And to get us off the pipe of foreign oil for our individual vehicles, we’re going to have to stare down low gas prices. Cheaper gas has already taken its toll on the ethanol industry, shutting down many of the corn into ethanol plants that might have helped us move off foreign oil. We can domestically produce energy for our cars from weeds and beans, but will that have to wait until Exxon controls all weeds and beans?
All of this might make you angry enough to want to burn-off your frustration with a nice long bike ride. And if so, there should be plenty of safe bike paths for you to travel. Cars get it all: All the road space, all the infrastructure, all the access and parking, all the insurance and auto repair and tire sales and—Man, cars make us their (rhymes with “witch”). In Europe, fuel-efficient motorcycles and scooters are taken seriously as a form of personal transportation. The city of Paris has some of the smallest automobiles I’ve ever seen. You can park two petite French autos and a scooter in the same Paris parking space that would be eaten up by one ’68 Oldsmobile Toronado… just to invoke one gas gulping behemoth no longer manufactured by an auto maker currently begging us for the cash to survive. What brought General Motors down to its current sad state? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the proliferation of safe bicycle paths.