Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around

I work for a very large library system. Sometimes, this is a curse - I'm subject to the whims of bureaucracy, I'm unable to enact a great deal of change without paperwork, I deal with disgruntled city workers on a regular basis, and oh, yes, there's a lot of paperwork. But one of the advantages of this system has to be the amazing group of donors who support library programming - Library Foundation of Los Angeles. At Central Library, the Library Foundation holds a regular lecture series called ALOUD on subjects ranging from Neutra's architecture to urban farming to poverty. The Library Foundation attracts fascinating authors to speak about their latest published works, and most of the programs are free. On occasion, ALOUD attracts some very big names - I've seen Steve Martin play the banjo and talk about his book Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, Garrison Keillor will perform next week to promote his novel Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance, and last night, I was able to attend a panel discussion featuring special guest, David Byrne. The lecture was called "Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around."

David Byrne, to promote his new book Bicycle Diaries, has been on a whirlwind tour of the United States, hitting many major metropolitan cities. In each panel discussion, he brings together a civic leader, an urban theorist, and a bicycle advocate. I had the pleasure to hear Michelle Mowery, Bicycle Coordinator for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Don Shoup, Professor of urban planning at UCLA (a "parking rock star"), and Jimmy Lizama of The Bicycle Kitchen as they joined David Byrne for a lively two hour discussion. Each speaker had fifteen minutes to give a presentation, then they all sat down for Q&A... that was supposed to last for 20 minutes, but ended up in the hour long territory.

David Byrne himself gave a really thoughtful speech - he talked a little bit about the freedom after he discovered cycling in an urban environment. He was living in Manhattan, and he found himself tired of relying on taxis or the train schedule. He found that when he rode his bike, he could easily hop from art gallery to a concert to a restaurant in much less time (and expense) than any other means of transportation. His presentation was particularly notable for the number of photos of different cities - both of urban spaces that worked with cycling (most notably in Europe and Asia) as well as places that weren't conducive for bicycles - including a snapshot of an Austin road.

Donald Shoup added a more academic tone to the discussion; his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, details the amount of money (and time) spent looking for curbside parking spots in urban locales. A biking enthusiast himself, he also introduced the idea of the Bicycle Boulevard as a cheap way to encourage biking within Los Angeles. I'm a neophyte when it comes to new urban planning ideas, so I was particularly fascinated by his engaging presentation. Honestly, it makes me want to take his class at UCLA!

The bureaucrat, Michelle Mowery, was the real star of the show, though. Articulate and passionate, she obviously loves her job... and the world of cycling. Every Monday, she rides from Long Beach to her downtown Los Angeles office via the LA River Bikeway. Her presentation was on the shorter side, but almost every single question in the Q&A section was addressed to her. And boy, was she able to answer them. She was one of the architects of the new Los Angeles Bike plan, and she was able to refer to specific chapter and page numbers that dealt with the complaints of the attendees. She said that the plan was incomplete, but her office was really working hard to gather more funding and more importantly, more awareness for the issues at hand. Mowery was also able to outline clear and feasible ways to practically implement almost every single suggestion from the biking community. I came away from the presentation extremely impressed that cycling had such an advocate in the city government.

The final presenter, Jimmy Lizama, offered a grassroots perspective on cycling in Los Angeles. I liked his presentation style; instead of using a traditional PowerPoint, he used a series of photographs to illustrate a story about his girlfriend's daily bike trip to the local elementary school with her son. Jimmy was able to illustrate both the joys and struggles of a typical Angeleno cyclist. And during the Q&A, he was able to offer more personal recollections to expand on theories presented by the other speakers.

I love the idea of using books as the basis for lectures such as these. Honestly, I have no real connection to the biking community here. I haven't owned a bicycle since my father sold mine in a garage sale during my high school years. But I really enjoyed the community that the library brought together through this book-based discussion. I've added a couple of items to my growing to-read pile, plus I gained some insight into my neighborhood. Sometimes, reading can seem like an insular activity, but events like these can be found at local libraries all over the country... and they're worth the trek. Or the bike ride.

2 comments:

  1. It's a funny thing, my neighbor and LA Streetsblog contributor Joe Linton told me I should read your post because I am a bike activist who also blogs, and my entry about the event is a rather striking contrast to yours. Take a look if you like:
    http://lugoa.blogspot.com/2009/10/burned-by-an-evening-with-david-byrne.html
    What different perspectives we have on Michelle Mowery, perhaps based on our different ways of getting around!
    Happy blogging to you!

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  2. I read your entry, and I can definitely see how someone with a different point of view could've interpreted the presentation.

    Did I think that the city of LA has the best plan in terms of the bike plan? Absolutely not. I agree, I think it's expensive, a bit over-ambitious, and not very practical. But I was more impressed with Michelle's pragmatic approach to dealing with the bureacracy of Los Angeles. As a civil servant, I have to deal with BS ALL THE TIME. I can't do anything small in my department without having the powers that be come down on me. The fact that she was able to do anything at all for bike advocacy is amazing to me. She's not kidding about the slow moving wheels of city government. And while Donald Shoup's suggestions for small government are infinitely more attractive to cyclists, they aren't attractive in political terms. Small scale projects aren't sexy, especially when things like bike boulevards would disrupt the status quo of a huge portion of voters. It would take an act of God to actually get a city councilman behind something like that, especially these publicity-centered megalomaniacs on our council. ;) The LA river project, though, will look nice and make a nice picture for family cyclists. Every council member would want to claim that.

    I liked your comments about the biking community turning this into a public meeting at city hall. That's exactly how I (and my lawyer friend who went with me) described the Q&A at dinner.

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