Material for Thought

Back on the bike again.

I picked up Mike Davis' City of Quartz again this morning. It's been years since I last read the book (no, this isn't a post about the notes I left in the book) and reading parts of it this morning, a couple of things jumped out at me. The first was how much the book is a product of Davis' particular political positions and commitments. In itself, that isn't necessarily a bad thing; and Davis' insistence on reading Los Angeles against the grain is often illuminating. At the same time, having learned to be a bit more skeptical since my junior year of high school, Davis' arguments are often buttressed by little more than a selective reading of local papers.

All that said, the book is subtitled Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, which suggests, I suppose, a way of looking at the past to glean something about the future. The epigraph - Walter Benjamin again - suggests as much a mode of investigation (historical materialism) as a political ethic (again, the Left). What I want to pick up on, then, is Davis' attention to the material facts of the city.

What does the way in which roads are planned say about a civic vision? What do police stations and post offices and bike racks and metro stops say about public space in Los Angeles? How do the material facts of the city - its many materialities - constrain our social lives? What, Marx's line runs that we make history, just not in the circumstances of our own choosing.

So that said, if I'm thinking and writing from the perspective of one who bikes in Los Angeles and from the point of view of one who would like to see more people biking Los Angeles, to what extent do the city's material facts matter?

A recent piece in the LA Weekly pointed out the mounting pothole problem on Wilshire. The boulevard, for all of its former splendor, was never built to take the abuse it currently takes. In particular, the massive gleaming Metro Rapid buses are too heavy for the asphalt, resulting in gaping potholes. Besides the obvious problems those potholes present for bikers, there's the hazard to cars and, as the article goes on to suggest, the very buses that are exacerbating the problem.

My point, as far as I have one, is that the material facts of Los Angeles seem to argue against more buses. The roads just can't take it (having biked 3rd for a brief stretch, which doesn't even have a Rapid Line, I know 3rd is going to pot as well). Broadly, there have been two modes of transportation in Los Angeles: The light rail lines that were instrumental in the city's first waves of growth and the private automobiles that followed. What's fascinating, of course, is the fact that much of the infrastructure built to facilitate movement by car is built upon or otherwise over the infrastructure originally laid for the light rail system.

Thus my question: If we are going to think beyond the automobile - if that's even a possibility in Los Angeles - how is one going to establish the infrastructure? In some sense, light rail proponents have it easy, insofar as they can argue that the planned light rail lines are simply recovering an earlier Los Angeles (think, for example, the nostalgia behind some of the Bringing Back Broadway movement). The challenge of arguing for bicycling in the city is that there is little to no existing infrastructure to which people can return.

But if the city is to build or otherwise encourage the development of new cycling-specific infrastructure, on what terms and to what end? Is the goal cycling-specific lanes and bike paths without vehicular access? Or is the goal to figure out how cyclists and drivers will be able to share what already exists? To be honest, it's not an either/or question, but I think there's a discussion that needs to happen between the two sides.

BikinginLA raised a great question a little more than a week ago. Writing about the smooth new bike lane that runs on Santa Monica Blvd. from Sepulveda before abruptly cutting out on entering Beverly Hills, he wondered how someone could have conceivably planned something that senseless. It's a great point, but the one thing I have to return - having only biked that section once, last week, during rush hour - is that the road is still usable. It's crowded, to be sure, but it's smooth and seemed wide enough (the ride is here). In spite of that disappearing lane, I'd still ride down Santa Monica Blvd. again.

So in this debate about advocacy, what's needed? I'm not exactly sure, but I've been turning over in my head some questions about ethics. There's a Cyclist's Bill of Rights, which is a great step. But I wonder if there's a need for the cycling community to come together and talk about the ethics of bike riding: There are a lot of things that one can do on a bike (roll the red, pedestrian crosswalks, burn a stop sign, so on), but thinking about my relationship to the cars I share the road with, there are certain things I don't want to do because I know if I were driving in a car, I'd be pissed as hell.

A lot for me to think about on my next ride.


Anonymous said…
Good food for thought, as always.

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