Friday, July 5, 2013

What’s the BART Strike to Bicyclists? – agony and ecstasy

For those in other transit-heavy cities, who are unfamiliar to the San Francisco Bay Area, a rail-system shutdown might not seem so bad to a bicycle commuter. In New York, Chicago, Boston, or DC, bicyclists sometimes think of transit as a sad alternative to pedaling. When I lived in New York, and later in Tokyo, biking to work saved time and money. It also offered a funeasy alternative to cramming into rush hour crowds, or sweatily waiting on a platform during hot humid summers.

But, the unique geography of the Bay doesn’t allow bicycling to function as a transit alternative in the same way. While bicycling can substitute Muni trips for the San Franciscans in the compact 7x7 tippy top % of the peninsula, the vast numbers of BART riders outside the city have no non-motorized way to cross the bay. You cannot legally walk or bike between the East Bay and SF/Marin anywhere north of the Dumbarton Bridge. Even with the shiny new retrofitted East Span of the Bay Bridge (under construction indefinitely), a pedestrian/bikeway will only carry people to Treasure Island, not the last-(2)mile(s) of the West Span.

Also, where BART acts like a subway in dense areas, within SF, or between Berkeley and Downtown Oakland, it plays the role of regional rail on the sprawling low density fringes, through Contra Costa County or the Southeast Bay. Many of these distant places are relatively isolated without BART or a motor vehicle due to geographical choke points. For example, to go from Oakland to Walnut Creek, bicyclists have to cross a volcano.

The Agony
Since bikes aren’t usually allowed on BART, or even in BART stations during commute hours (which I will lovingly refer henceforward to as the “BART Bike Ban”), the strike doesn’t directly affect bike commuters. Most bicyclists with transbay commutes take buses, ferries, or the choicest option, the Caltrans Bike Shuttle.  Bicyclists are indirectly affected by the overflow of commuters onto these non-BART alternatives, manifesting as congestion and/or fewer seats. Count that: bicyclists are already normally restricted from BART, and with the strike, they face inflated competition on their regular non-BART workarounds. 

To add insult to injury, the BART Bike Ban was slated to be lifted for a 5-month pilot project beginning July 1, the same day BART workers struck.  When I told people about the unhappy co-incidence, a lot of them replied, “Is that why they’re striking?” People thought the policy of opening bikes onto BART might be strike-worthy. 

The Ecstasy
Thankfully, although these complaints are intended to highlight the systemic injustices faced by Bay Area bicycling commuters, I can’t complain too much since my de facto commute has been relatively painless. On the first day of the strike, I was prepared for the Bike Shuttle to be snarled in bumper-to-bumper traffic; my trusty ex-NASCAR shuttle driver edged through the crawling freeway, bikes trailing behind, and when fully situated in the left-most lane, he turned on the rotating roof light, zipped onto the shoulder and zoomed zoomed zoomed. ~30min total, 50% longer than usual, but hardly anything to cry about. Additionally, Caltrans graciously ran both Bike Shuttle rigs, accommodating 28 bikes/trip instead of the standard 14. Thanks Caltrans!

It needs to be noted: I am of the lucky and privileged contingent living within bikeable- vicinity of MacArthur BART, the Bike Shuttle’s only destination outside SF.  I know of numerous others who begin their commute with a bike ride to BART in the East Bay, lock up at the station, get on BART, and walk the last-mile to their workplaces in the city. To those bicyclists who’re forced to shift into driving modes, I mourn your loss, and I hope that the 30-day contract extension, and the lifting of the BART Bike Ban, will inspire you to bring your whip into the city and ride around during and after work. Live it up! Ride away.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

LA Weekly “Bikeroots:" Co-optation in the Making?

Although it may not have been intentional, one wonders why Hillel Aron, and his LA Weekly article's photos, focused on four professional white males. It's easy to summarize history by simply pointing to specific people, but it is often wrong and usually incomplete. The truth about the grass roots bicycling movement in Los Angeles is that it arises from the progress of the city's historically disenfranchised people (of color, women, in the queer community, immigrants, working class, youth, non-English speakers, etc).*

Through a combination of omissions and generalizations--especially those about the Bicycle Kitchen, LACBC, and Midnight Ridazzz--the article comes dangerously close to presenting a revisionist undermining of the relationships between these communities and LA bicycling. At best, they add up to shoddy journalism, and at worst, they carry a whiff of co-optation by straight white male upper-middle class men.

The article frames the Bicycle Kitchen as a place that facilitated transformation of bicycling from a "DIY, anticapitalist hobby" to a fashion statement replete with iPhones and tight pants. This is a preposterous suggestion. Although bicycling has gained a fashion footnote in mainstream media, the Bicycle Kitchen has never aimed to move it there. On the contrary, the space thrives because it collects the diverse outsider perspectives of its volunteers. While hipsters do use the space, so do homeless people, kids from the largely Latino neighborhood (who can't afford iPhones), and immigrant day-laborers, among others. This departure from the mainstream--not the push towards it--is exemplified in the regular Monday night shift "Bicycle Bitchen," which creates a safe space for women and transgendered people within bicycling.

The article repeatedly misacronyms LACBC as "LA Bicycle Coalition" instead of the LA County Bicycle Coalition. It also reduces the organization's accomplishments to its impact on the Sunset and Venice bicycle lanes and Metro bus racks. If a person glanced at the LACBC's body of work, they would find numerous other projects that have steadily improved bicycling in Los Angeles, including the recent installation of sharrows on Fountain Ave and the continuing City of Lights outreach program.

Most significantly, as a blanket organization, LACBC reaches across the spectrum within the bicycling community, from weekend warrior roadies, to immigrant commuters. The LACBC is not the apex of bicycling advocacy--nor does it claim to be. It faces its own set of challenges and barriers, and exclusionary rhetoric from other advocates that describes its work as ineffective or tertiary is wrong, destructive and counterproductive. Additionally, failure to properly credit the group neglects the efforts of a largely female staff, including planners, community coordinators, and executive directors.

While the article only praises LACBC's origins, it ignores the origin of Midnight Ridazzz, limiting its discussion to later stages, involving the growing hipster participation, clashes with the police, and irritation of drivers. The unacknowledged roots began with women planning rides with friends to explore the city. The early agenda didn’t include creation of a trendy scene, or confrontation with drivers and police. As in its treatment of LACBC, the article limits its attention to a male-dominated back story.

Unquestionably, Ron Milam, Joe Linton, Alex Thompson and Stephen Box have a place in LA Bicycling. And I applaud Box's gusto in running for office. Contending for an elected position in a city as fractioned as Los Angeles is a financially, physically and emotionally draining process. That said, the article's problematically flawed oversimplification of the city's grass roots bicycling movement wrongfully couples Box's campaign to the state of bicycling. His win or loss, however defined, is by no means representative of the feelings for, against, or within, the bicycling community. Life is delightfully complicated as is Los Angeles bicycle culture. Stories about us should illuminate that, not simplify and deaden it.

* Personally, I believe these communities may be predisposed to bicycling in a place where it isn't deemed normal because they already recognize the need to manifest radical solutions in the face of oppressive systems that perpetuate themselves (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism), not unlike LA's driving culture.