Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On Bikes, Buses and "Cool"

This blog was started explicitly as a transit blog. (That logo up there? It's a bus stop.) I started writing because I truly, passionately care about our transit system in Riverside. The bus and Metrolink got my wife and I where we needed to go for many years, and there hasn't been a time when I'm not thankful that I live in a place that provides safe, convenient and cost-effective public transit. I think that public transit is essential to the present and future of our society, and I genuinely enjoy riding the bus- it's a great time for me to catch up on reading, playing the odd video game on my cellphone (I have an NES emulator- Super Mario 3 anyone?), or just relaxing and staring out the window.

The way that my advocacy efforts and this blog have evolved over what has been a nearly two-year run so far have me a bit concerned, though. After spending some time in the Los Angeles livable streets blogosphere, and the greater movement, I see a lot of focus on bicycles and bicycling. On this blog, I do discuss bicycle issues (I am a cyclist after all), but I think it's important to make sure bicycles are put in their proper place in a balanced transportation system.

Don't get me wrong. Bikes are awesome. They're cheap, reliable, easy to use, easy to repair, produce zero greenhouse gas emissions, require next to no space to park, and make short trips a breeze, even in suburban auto-dependent hell. They're also a lot of fun, and a great way to get some much-needed exercise- I have lost a couple of inches around the waist since I started cycling for transportation seriously. Bikes are certainly part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution.

The automobile, despite its shortcomings, is a fantastically versatile tool. I have made trips in an automobile that range in destination from the corner store to Vancouver and Brooklyn. We're talking about a transportation system that allows for any vehicle owner to make a journey of nearly any length at any time they choose, and that is something powerful and seductive. I firmly believe that the costs of such mobility far outweigh the benefits, but we need to keep in mind just how impressive a tool for transportation an automobile is, when we are advocating for alternatives.

We will not replace the car with any one mode of transportation. This is not a situation where we can simply swap car for bike and move on. Walking, cycling, local buses, express buses, intercity buses, BRT buses, light rail, heavy rail, commuter and intercity rail, and even taxicabs have their place in the car-free transportation toolbox of the future. I understand that bicycles are "cool" right now, but bikes are simply one piece of this puzzle. We can't favour one mode at the expense of all others- that's how we got into this mess in the first place.

And moreover, we can't neglect certain modes of transport in our toolbox, especially those that are ubiquitous, cheap and versatile. I speak, of course, of the bus. Many who advocate for transportation alternatives today will happily walk to the store, get on a bike or ride a train, but boarding a bus is essentially out of the question. This is unacceptable- the bus is a fact of modern alternative transportation, and for good reason. Riding the bus is currently associated with the extremely poor, and we must work to change that. The fact that Riverside has a Bicycle Advisory Committee and yet no Transit Rider Advisory Committee is very telling- local politicians want to know what cyclists need in infrastructure, but they assume they know what bus riders need. (That's service to the welfare office, social security and unemployment of course.)

In summary, I don't want this to become a "bike blog." Yes, bikes are awesome. No, bikes won't solve our transportation problems alone. Bikes are useful- bikes on the bus, many times moreso. We must, as a movement, put aside the stigma of the bus and work for an efficient, balanced transportation system using whatever tools are available and appropriate.


Peter said...

You should stop worrying about defending the bus and start worrying about getting people a dignified way to get themselves around -- namely, walking and biking. After that, find them a dignified way to travel by motorized transit -- that can never happen on a bus, unless you're talking about some type of luxury coach bus.

So, don't worry about the bus - it's over. Get on the bike bandwagon.

JN said...

@Peter- I think that owning a bike that's worth more than my car, and using it to go pretty much everywhere, puts me squarely on the "bike bandwagon." (Meet Chloe: )

However, it's exactly this sort of attitude that mystifies me so, and I think it's brilliant that you chimed in with it. It shows that even among my readers, and I figure my readership is a pretty alt-transport-friendly group, there is a substantial portion of anti-bus sentiment.

Why is it, exactly, that dignity and buses are mutually exclusive? They aren't that way in Europe- Human Transit notes that, in Berlin, the difference between a streetcar and a frequent bus aren't even noted on the map. ( ) Even back east, the Chinatown buses (which certainly lack glamour) are extraordinarily popular along the I-95 corridor- safe, efficient, and cheap, and nobody looks down on anyone else for riding them.

Every time I've ridden a bus, it has been clean, comfortable and confrontation-free. They're occasionally late, but so are trains. When I make a trip into Orange County, I don't fret much over whether I'll take Metrolink or the 216- I'll take whatever fits my schedule. Yet I know many people who would never set foot on a bus, even open-minded people who are practically giddy over the prospect of taking a train, and I don't understand why.

What is it about American buses, and especially local city buses, that elicits this reaction even from alt-transport advocates?

Jim Baross said...

It's about choice; being able to use the most appropriate transpo mode for the trip, terrain, physical ability, time available, cost - personal and environment, etc. Sometimes that a bike, sometimes feet, sometimes a plane/boat, etc.

And, I'm president of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations (CABO) looking for a representative for the Inland Empire. Look us up at and contact me to discuss our need for a rep.

JN said...

Jim- you're absolutely right about choice. The trouble is that there is a mode which is often an excellent choice for many trips, yet even alt-transport friendly people look down upon it for no apparent reason. See the first commenter above.

I'm glad to hear that your organization is looking to expand into the IE, but I'm not a member of any formal cycling organization. The Riverside Bicycle Club is linked on my blogroll- perhaps they can help you?

Anonymous said...

I love this post. Yes, yes, yes. I just came from the bike summit in LA. And I like bikes, I have one, it's cool, but really that's the answer to the car? A bike? A bike only, not bicycle/public transit combo? I mean really. Are we really that INSANE. And yes I think it's insane to expect everyone to give up their car AND the bus and take their bicycles exclusively. That is unreasonable. We need to get public transit working in a real way so people have real reasonable options. Yes things should be closer, but they are not. Yes we should having housing and bike lanes by transit, but it's not. The only reason I can even consider being carFREE in LA and ride my bike as much as I do is because I live in a loft (and it's not cheap) up the street from Union Station and don't have kids and I have a job that I get decide what time I come in.

Can we admit the little bit of privilege that is involved in this bike only centric mindset and think about others that may be disabled or older or have to transport more kids or live out in suburbs because they can't afford to be near transit accessible areas.

I can admit that. I can see that. I don't understand why so many others in the alt transit world can't see that.

I just came from a summit where a person suggested that disabled people ride recumbent bicycles and asked the CEO of metro is there away we can make it possible to get those on the bike rack?

How is a disabled person supposed to get a recumbent bicycle on a bus rack even if it were possible to do that?

And it was just crazy, man, it was crazy, I mean it was great, but in some ways it was really super amazingly crazy.

The busses in LA run horribly, but we can't even talk about getting that to run right before we start talking about putting people in wheelchairs in recumbent bicycles?