John Balzar is leaving the LA Times soon to go to work for the Humane Society in a PR position. Balzar’s departure is sad on many levels; he was one of the Times’ best and most passionate writers, a last link to the Otis Chandler years. His story today on Monica Howe, outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, could well be the last byline he has in the newspaper.
So I was frustrated after reading it to see that Balzar, of all people, wrote it. I wanted to rip it to shreds as yet another example of the Times’ shallow reporting, and of the missed opportunity to expose its readers to the many fascinating and disruptive dimensions of the urban bicycling movement. But, as is my usual habit, I read the byline last.
“Aw nuts,” I said to myself. “I really respect Balzar.” I started making excuses for him. Maybe it’s his editors’ fault. Maybe the problem is the unimaginative approach of the Times’ website overseers. And hey, it’s not the like story is bad, exactly. It’s well-written and… uh…
Okay, read Balzar’s story. Do you see the words “Critical Mass” in there anywhere? No? In 1992, there was a massive traffic disruption in San Francisco, in which bicyclists dramatized their demands by clogging automotive traffic at rush hour. It was called Critical Mass–a “visionary traffic jam.” Critical Mass is now the name given to a monthly mass bike ride in major cities, in which bicycle and other self-propelled commuters take part. According to the Critical Mass site dedicated to listing such events, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Newport Beach are among the cities that participate regularly. It says here that the Los Angeles Critical Mass ride used to start at Sunset and Silver Lake, but recently moved to Wilshire and Western. It’s a local phenomenon as well as a global one.
If you’re interested in what Critical Mass is all about, you can start with Wikipedia’s entry on the topic — a great read. Critical Mass is many things: An environmental protest, a demand that cities do a better job of accomodating cyclists and ensuring their safety on public roadways, a celebration, an “organized coincidence” that demonstrates the viability of xerocracy — a benign form of anarchy, in which no one is in charge, but a mass event happens anyway. Did you know that the Critical Mass phenomenon has led to a Rand Institute study of netwars?
It’s possible, of course, that Monica Howe knows nothing about Critical Mass — unlikely, but possible. But she certainly knows her own organization, and the specific public policy demands it has made. Balzar describes Howe’s political positions this way:
She has thrown herself into the campaign to demand the stenciling of “sharrows” on city streets. A sharrow is a bicycle symbol with two chevrons that is meant to remind motorists to share the road and also to promote better lane positioning for those on bikes. Howe has rallied cyclists to demand safer streets. She has led efforts to support cyclists hit by cars. She has promoted group rides that bring residents in touch with unfamiliar neighborhoods. She hammers away on the idea that bicycles are the only zero-emission transit machines.
But his focus seems to be mostly on Howe’s personality. This is a personality profile, after all. But how many stories does the Times run on the issues facing bicyclists in Los Angeles? If not in this story, when is the Times going to tell its readers what the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition is advocating? Here is a flyer from CICLE (Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange) that Howe’s coalition wants to distribute to motorists:
(I hope this is readable. It’s downloadable at the link above.)
The most important thing to take away from this flyer is that bicycle activists believe bicyclists should be entitled to as much space on the road as a car. They don’t use the sidewalk, and they shouldn’t be limited to the parking lane — those places are often too dangerous. People in parked cars are wont to open their doors suddenly, placing a deadly obstacle in the path of a fast-moving bicyclist. Also, sometimes bicyclists need to make left turns. They are not breaking the law if they cut in front of you to do this. They have a right to do this.
The organization is also joining a postcard-writing campaign aimed at Mayor Villaraigosa:
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks about his efforts to make Los Angeles “the greenest and cleanest city in America”, yet his vision for a sustainable Los Angeles continues to neglect an emphasis on walking and bicycling as being part of this future.
Cities such as Portland, OR and San Francisco have quickly risen to the top of the list as the nation’s most sustainable cities. These cities have made significant efforts to encourage both bicycling and walking as clean and viable modes of transportation. C.I.C.L.E. believes that if Los Angeles is to become the “greenest and cleanest” city in the nation, then we too need to be incorporating strategies that encourage bicycling and walking as part of a sustainable solution for our transportation needs.
That’s news, isn’t it? Not as sexy as the mayor’s battle over LAUSD, I grant, but if the Times is going to write a story about one of the city’s most influential bicyclist advocates, shouldn’t her involvement in a political protest of the mayor’s policies rate a mention? Doesn’t it stand to reason that there ought to be — at least — a link to some of this information on the web?
Believe me, I’m no expert on bicycling or bicycle activists. I found all this information in about 10 minutes. There is undoubtedly much, much more. The Web is one place where bicycle activists talk to each other–globally.
Bicyclist activism is a rich topic with massive implications for growth, the environment, transportation in Los Angeles — way more interesting stuff than anything SCAG has to say on those topics. It is also a harbinger of the new forms that political activism will take, as the Harold Meyerson-approved model of deep-thinking, self-congratulatory conferences gives way to a new form of networking that, as you read further into it, could alter the balance of power in a dimension that conventional politics can’t access.
As far as it goes, John Balzar gives Monica Howe a nice profile. I can just imagine the Westsiders who form the Times’ core readership reading it and nodding their heads approvingly. Bicycles are just…so…wonderful! Like puppies and rainbows. That’s just great that somebody is so passionate about it. These readers might have had a different reaction if they understood the radicalism inherent in bicycle activism.